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How Being Big in Japan (or Germany, or Russia ... ) Gets a Movie Made

Last week, Slate’s Tom Shone decried the absence of U.S.-set movies onscreen at the current cinema, attributing the dearth, rightly, to the fact that the global marketplace now accounts for 70 percent of Hollywood’s box-office revenues. All of last year’s box-office growth came from gains made overseas: In the last five years, international grosses have jumped by 35 percent, while North America’s box office dropped by 4 percent. And so, few movies are green-lit without handicapping how well the film might play abroad. Hence the steady proliferation of megabudget action films: No U.S.-specific nuance, just CGI that knows no borders. But robots and fireballs and spaceships aren’t the only things that translate “over there”; actual human actors do, too. And so when deciding a film’s budget, some of Hollywood’s smaller studios like DreamWorks and Lionsgate look to foreign financiers to help raise the money, and what kind of pull their cast has outside of the U.S. determines how much coin will flow. It’s a tricky business, and one that can reveal some surprising details. Hey, turns out Kevin James is big in Germany!

It is the job of people like Patrick Wachsberger, Lionsgate Motion Picture Group co-chairman, to figure out how best to leverage the right stars in different parts of the world to maximize grosses, though he cautions that it’s not a simple, easily quantifiable equation. “You could not go about it by plugging numbers into a computer and waiting for them to be spit out,” he explains. “I don’t want to say it’s artistry, but it kind of is.” However, when choosing a cast for a film, there is a delicate hedging of bets, using stars who may be negligible in the States, but who are of decisive value overseas.

Take Colin Firth, for example. “Internationally, [he] is a draw,” says Wachsberger. “Most Americans would say, ‘Colin who?’ But [if we could get him] we would say, ‘Oh, great!’” The King’s Speech was a surprise hit in the U.S., pulling in $139 million. But it was a downright blockbuster abroad, taking in nearly twice that. The bulk of that came from Europe, and King’s Speech was a very European story, but as a British actor, Firth is often a draw there. Take his Easy Virtue: Forgotten in the U.S. (or barely noticed in the first place) in 2009 with $2.6 million, it was rescued by taking in another $15.8 million overseas.

Other stars dominate when they’re in their wheelhouse genre. For example, the aforementioned Kevin James is huge in Germany when he’s doing physical comedy. His grosses for The Zookeeper there nearly doubled that from the film’s next highest-earning country, Mexico. (When it came to the less pratfall-driven The Dilemma, Germans largely stayed away, along with the rest of the world.) And while Jason Statham feels a bit B-movie in America, he is probably the biggest and most consistently profitable action star working in the world today, with a particularly loyal fan base in Russia.

Without the vast coffers that Wall Street–owned media hydras possess, smaller studios like Lionsgate and Summit (the latter of which Wachsberger owned before Lionsgate bought it in January) often spread risk by bringing in foreign distributors who chip in on the budget in exchange for exhibiting the film in their region. Having a star who is a proven lure in a financier’s neck of the woods is a big enticement. One talent agency insider familiar with Statham’s power abroad says, “I once read a Millennium Films spreadsheet on the financing of The Mechanic about how much Statham's name raised in [pre-sales to distributors in] the different territories around the world — it totaled $22 million."

It was no accident that Summit’s 2010 action thriller RED was populated with stars like Bruce Willis, Morgan Freeman, Helen Mirren, and John Malkovich. Sources say that its budget was a little under $60 million, but with the cast’s international appeal, the company was able to raise 70 percent of that budget by preselling distribution rights to overseas exhibitors. (A Lionsgate representative declined to comment.)

RED provides an interesting lesson in the nuances of calculating each star’s value when looking at the world view. “With Bruce Willis alone [in an action movie today], a foreign buyer in, let’s say, Scandinavia, could be excited — or not,” explains Wachsberger, who sat with his lieutenant, Helen Lee-Kim, who heads up Lionsgate’s international division.

“The Scandies like their action a little more sophisticated,” adds Lee-Kim.

“Right,” says Wachsberger. “So with Bruce Willis alone in ‘just’ an action movie, the Scandinavian buyer is asking, ‘Who else is in the movie? Who’s directing?’ Because the budget directs the look of the movie, and a substantial amount of money paid to a star like Bruce Willis changes that look.” In other words, if a big wad of cash goes to Willis’s salary, and he’s the only real star, they can’t spend much more on the other elements or the film will never recoup, since Willis’s value in most places (not just Scandinavia) is not what it used to be. Says Jay Cohen, a partner at the Gersh Agency who heads its independent film finance and distribution division, “Bruce needs people with him in a movie. He’s older, he hasn’t worked as much, and the recent movies haven’t worked as much, either.” Cohen estimates that securing Willis’s involvement alone likely accounted for only $10 to $12 million of the budget via presales. (The Lionsgate spokesman also declined to comment on these figures.)

But Willis’s value does grow when he’s in one of his proven franchises, like Die Hard, or amid a gaggle of other well-known stars. No accident then that Willis has many action sequels in the months to come: Next month’s The Expendables 2 will be followed by Die Hard 5: A Good Day to Die Hard in February, and RED 2 in August 2013. In these, he’s a much safer bet.

In fact, The Expendables and its sequel are textbook examples of the new economic reality of Hollywood: It is almost entirely a dialogue-free series of explosions and gunfights designed to leverage the appeal of virtually every foreign action star on the planet — Briton Jason Statham, Australian Liam Hemsworth, Chinese Jet Li, Scandinavian Dolph Lundgren, and Belgian Jean Claude Van Damme — all the while simultaneously exploiting stars who have a bright future behind them in America (e.g., Willis, Stallone, Schwarzenegger, and even Chuck Norris — now 72!), but who still have huge value overseas. “Foreign buyers buy ‘yesterday,’" explains Cohen, “They don’t buy ‘tomorrow.'”

Max Von Sydow once groused that Hollywood’s propensity for onscreen xenophobia meant that “those with an accent are bad guys.” But he might be cheered up to know that, behind the scenes, those with an accent have very much become Hollywood’s saviors.