The rest of the world just doesn’t understand our humor. In a recent article in the LA Times, it was reported that studio fat cats are reluctant as ever to greenlight new comedies because of their poor box office potential overseas, “where culturally specific humor can be difficult to translate.” As your resident comedy tourism expert at Splitsider, I can attest to the fact that, no doy, humor is typically a culture-specific phenomenon. Even a fart joke might not translate depending on the context in which it is presented and the socially accepted norms of the audience. But that doesn’t mean the world doesn’t have a sense of humor, it just means they don’t have our sense of humor. Which is great for the diversity of comedy in general, but bad news for the diversity of comedy coming out of Hollywood.
One feared result is that studios will trend towards the lowest common denominator — as if they don’t already, amiright? — making films with appeal so broad it’s boring and an over-saturation of animatronic animals. Now I love me a good pratfall, and don’t even get me started on the hilarity of a nut shot, but why do wordplay and situational irony have to suffer? Maybe they don’t, but only if they arrive in the form of wit and satire to which this ubiquitous “international audience” can relate. For example, Sacha Baron Cohen’s upcoming film The Dictator. There is hope, people.
So okay fine, comedies in general don’t fare well overseas. Makes sense, why should they? Most of America is not petitioning Bollywood to send us over their latest laff riot. But after reading this article, I still got curious. Two specific questions popped up for me:
What were the highest-grossing comedies at the foreign box office?
And which countries dominate the overseas theater-going audience?
With Box Office Mojo and IMDB by my side, I set out to find the Top Ten Highest-Grossing Comedies Abroad.
Before I get to the list, let me explain to you the considerations/filters/method used.
Without further ado, and there’s been a lot of ado, I present to you the Top Ten Live Action Comedies with the Highest Foreign Box Office returns. Let’s do this.
10. Meet the Fockers - $237,381,779
This is what happens when you add Barbara Streisand and Dustin Hoffman to an already stellar cast, right? Okay, their contribution to the astounding success of this film is debatable – it probably has to do with some rule of sequels. Either way, Gaylord Focker & Co. made some serious cheddar with this outing. Heads up — this is not the only sequel, nor is it the only Ben Stiller appearance on the list. The suspense is palpable, I know.
9. Bruce Almighty – $241,763, 613
Remember the part when he’s lip syncing C + C Music Factory’s hit “Power” and he makes a fire hydrant explode? Well that’s a memory you can share with the rest of world apparently. Fun fact: this is the only comedy on the list in which the Foreign B.O. was almost equal to the domestic gross.
The film predictably did the best in United Kingdom, earning $37,412,900 there. Second best showing was in Germany with a little over 21 million and third was Spain with about 19.5 million in B.O. returns.
It had the lowest showing in Bulgaria with a total gross of $39,228.
8. Notting Hill — $247,800,000
I warned you romantic comedies would appear, and you better brace yourselves because this isn’t the only one to make the list. The film fared much better abroad than in the US, and perhaps should be precluded because it’s technically a British film, but Julia Roberts is in it — so judges say it counts (I’m the only judge). But seriously, who knew Notting Hill of all movies was so popular? I guess everywhere in the world there’s a girl standing in front of a boy asking him to love her.
Unfortunately, the country-by-country breakdown is not available for this film although I’m guessing the UK is responsible for a major chunk of the overall foreign B.O. Apparently, though, in Russia and the caucuses it made $450,000. So that’s something.
7. Men in Black II — $251,400,000
I seriously do not remember the plot of this movie, but I know I saw it. Here is the first, but also not last, scifi comedy in the group. It may surprise you to know the foreign box office dominated the domestic box office, despite its stateside popularity. Will Smith isn’t just America’s favorite comedic action star — he belongs to the world now. And probably the universe too. Him and his enormous trailer.
The United Kingdom again contributed the largest chunk of foreign returns with over $34 million but Germany was close behind again with $30+ million. Japan had the third largest profit with over $28 million, and France was fourth.
The film made the least revenue in Egypt, earning a mere $127,040 and Bulgaria with only $114,164.
6. Sex and the City — $262,606,383
Roll your eyes back down already and accept the fact that Carrie, Charlotte, Miranda and Samantha are an international sensation. Whether the film was a romantic comedy, a tongue-in-cheek sex romp or a total abomination — feel free to debate. Whatever your feelings, SATC obliterated the foreign box office and grossed $100 million more abroad than it did stateside. Once bitten, though, SATC 2 did not fare nearly as well at home or internationally.
The original did do well in the UK, as well as in the other usual suspects: Germany, Australia, France and Japan. It almost cracked the $10 million mark in Russia too.
The least profit came from Bolivia with $40,059 and Nigeria with $32,828.
5. Pretty Woman — $285,000,000
Oh hey, another Julia Roberts Romcom. Not only is it amazing to me that the foreign box office outperformed the domestic 2 to 1, but also that the production budget on this move was a paltry $14 million. American sarcasm might not play to an international audience — but hooker with a heart of gold apparently does.
A county-by-country breakdown was unavailable for this film, perhaps because this is the oldest film on the list having been released in 1990 BEFORE THE INTERNET.
4. The Hangover Part II — $300,000,000
This is the one film on the list I have not seen and I don’t know whether to be embarrassed or proud. Let’s say both. The wolfpack roared back to the box office with a vengeance this summer, and the film is still ravaging theaters worldwide. It’s probably the spiciest comedy on the list, as I’m guessing it takes the most extreme moments from the first film and recreates them again maybe to the even more extreme. Boobs, dicks, drugs, etc.
In terms of individual countries, it’s killing it as usual in the UK and Germany, but also doing numbers in the solid eight digits in Brazil, Russia and Mexico. Maybe this is the only true cross-cultural comedy there is. God I hope not.
Even though the movie takes place in Thailand, it has only netted $860,220 there. Cue the sad trombones.
3. Night at the Museum — $323,617,573
The success of Night at the Museum supports the Zookeeper theory discussed in the ‘inciting’ LA Times article. Animals and slapstick animatronics translate well in all cultures. Generalize much, Hollywood? Overall, this film did over half a billion dollars in revenue worldwide. Seems crazy, but I remember when I was visiting Moscow in 2006 the city was plastered with advertisements for the film. The studios really believed in its global potential — and hoo boy, it delivered.
The film did the best in the UK (shocking to no one at this point, I realize), but saw it’s second best foreign revenue come from Japan where it made over $30 million. The third highest box office returns came from South Korea. It also had a strong showing in Germany and Italy.
Lowest profit country was Oman with total revenue at just over $43,000.
2. Men in Black — $338,700,000
C’mon and make your neck work. I don’t really recall the plot of the first MIB either beyond Vincent D’onofrio’s weird human skin suit, but I still remember the song and dance. And isn’t that the best legacy for any great comedy? I don’t know anymore.
The country breakdown was not available for this film.
1. Mamma Mia! — $465,711,574
That’s right, your mom’s favorite movie also happens to be the most successful comedy at the foreign box office. Did you know two-time Academy Award-winning actress Meryl Streep is in it? Or recent Academy Award-winner Colin “Mr. Darcy Forever” Firth is too? Or Remington Steele’s Pierce Brosnan?? This may be the most star-studded movie you’d never be caught dead seeing. And it’s pretty terrible — this is coming from someone who sincerely loves ABBA (me). It’s a musical, sure, but it’s also enough of a comedy to count. Even crazier than it being the highest-grossing live action comedy abroad — it may be the highest-grossing live action comedy period. With the international revenues triple what the domestic gross was, the movie comes in as the 57th highest-grossing film worldwide of ALL TIME. Mamma Mia, indeed.
Across the European board and beyond, the film fared incredibly well. In the United Kingdom alone it grossed almost as much as it did in the States. And in the respective countries of Germany, Australia, South Korea, Japan and of course Sweden, it grossed at least $20 million or more.
And to add rhyme to reason, supplement to argument, insult to injury, here is the full theatrical trailer in all its glory.
I spend the majority of my time focusing on importing comedy from abroad to the American audience, because frankly I think we already export enough cultural influence already.
While it was interesting to learn that aside from the UK, Germany might be the biggest audience for imported comedy, it’s difficult to draw substantive evidence on where comedies succeed the most. Sure, from a pure profit standpoint they do the best in Western Europe, Japan and Australia, but it is still too relative. What are the ticket prices, what is the population, what is the mean income, what is the GDP — these are all questions that would need to be answered to really start informing which countries have the highest percentage of butts in seats for comedies.
That said, all Hollywood seems to care about is the bottom line: which countries offer the most total revenue potential, all other factors aside. And those countries, my friends, are most likely the over-generalized demographic studios are desperately trying to reach.
Big budget movies will always prevail, comedy or not, but hopefully the profits from these can buoy the costs of a few less “mainstream” comedies like those of Apatow and “the biggest thing since Apatow” and the “the biggest thing since the biggest thing since Apatow” and Woody Allen. Either that, or we can look forward to a whole lot of jukebox musicals in the near future.
Laura Turner Garrison sometimes writes commercials, she sometimes writes comedy, but she always rights wrongs.