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Remember that movie Sarah's Key? Did you miss it? It was last year's highest grossing foreign-language film, but it made less than eight million dollars. The fact is that selling foreign language films to U.S. audiences is a notorious challenge. Nevertheless, Fox, one of the world's most powerful media conglomerates, is beefing up its investment in foreign films.
How does Rupert Murdoch expect to make money that way, given the tiny audiences for foreign movies? Well, it turns out Fox is making them for their own local markets. A Chinese film called Love In Space earned $10 million in China. A German hit called What A Man made $12 million in Germany. And a hugely scaled Russian epic about the Bolshevik revolution pulled in a very aristocratic $50 million in Russia.
None of these hit local films saw a real release in the U.S. (Love In Space played briefly in New York.) All were co-produced by Fox International and local partners — sometimes sister media companies and sometimes independent local film companies. Sanford Panitch runs the division from Los Angeles. He says if you want to make money selling films internationally, you might assume you do it by exporting big Hollywood blockbusters. But overlooking local movies is overlooking significant markets.
"China is the second or third biggest market in the world at 50 percent local," he says. "India the fourth biggest at 90 percent local, France at 40 percent local, Germany at 30 percent local, Korea a billion dollar market 50 percent, Japan — actually, Japan [is] the biggest international market in the world, 60 percent local."
Fox International Productions actually started off three years ago with a Japanese version of the movie Sideways -- that's the one about two guys touring wine country. "When we originally got into the business," Panitch says, we thought, 'We've got this great library, let's take advantage of it.' And ironically, local markets don't want recycled Hollywood content."
And really, why would they? Bollywood hardly needs need old American ideas. The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo has refreshed Hollywood's interest in stories from abroad. That's not a Fox picture, but Panitch says his division is introducing foreign books, scripts and directors to the larger Fox system.
"There's a new aesthetic that's coming out of people that werent' schooled in traditional Hollywood ways," he says. "There's an incestuousness creatively here where we're all reading the same publications and listening to the same music."
One of Fox international's latest successes comes from Mexico. Miss Bala is an art house film that crossed over to find wide audiences in Mexico. It's about a naïve beauty queen who falls in with a drug cartel. It opens in the U.S. this Friday, January 20. "This guy's really talented," says Panitch of the film's director, Gerardo Naranjo.
"I said, 'I won't change anything.' That was my first reaction," Naranjo says of his suspicions when he first got a call from Fox. At that point, he'd basically finished the movie, but he needed money to reshoot a few key scenes. Naranjo wondered how much Fox would interfere. "What we felt the first moment was we had to protect the film," he says. "I guess I was very concerned about not changing content for it to be a Fox film." By which Naranjo means he did not want John Williams music or a sentimental ending. And he was surprised that a Fox News sister company would support a Mexican film critical of America's role in the drug trade. "To my surprise, they were great people, supportive of us," he says.
Fox International found Miss Bala through a Fox executive in Mexico. Panitch points out that Fox's global network of executives managing Fox-owned television stations and distributing Fox movies gives them an edge in finding and working with local talent. Many of these movies will be available to Americans through video on demand and DVD, but their success really does not depend on audiences here.
"And that's ... the shift is a little scary sometimes," Panitch says. "'Cause it means, you mean Hollywood American movies aren't the only thing people wnt to see? And thank goodness."
Movie audiences are on the rise in the important emerging economies known as BRIC in business circles. Brazil, Russia, India, China. Here, they're dropping. ...like a brick.