What Film Concepts Travel Globally?

Hollywood is paradoxically defined by it’s difficulty (read: near impossibility) to access, yet fueled by its voracious desire to be accessible to new talent. Furthermore, since studios are relying on global (especially) box office more than ever, they are acutely aware of universal material appealing to global audiences.

Which film genres play best globally?

The key genres which travel are action, adventure, horror, thriller and Jim Carey-style physical comedy. Teen “Judd Apatow” type comedies have limited non-US appeal. “Knocked Up” chalked up two thirds of it’s global box office in North America. Similar statistics were reported for “The Bounty Hunter” and “The Hangover”, which have a distinct American sensibility.

Broader comedies tend to travel better. Extreme black comedy, deadpan, bone dry, idiosynchratic and slapstick comedies fare better in their home markets.

So long as the characters’ goals and conflicts are clear within a relatable plot framework, audience will respond to the material. To illustrate a bride or groom getting cold feet minutes before the wedding can be understood by all, despite the vast differences in how wedding ceremonies are executed throughout the world.

Sports movies, or movies based on localized events have difficulty traveling because foreign audiences don’t have the same cultural frame of reference. “The Blind Side” with a $255 million global box office, reported only 15% of this amount in foreign markets.

Having said that, most Tyler Perry films rarely secure a foreign release because the material is too topical… even for me. On the bright side his budgets of around $20 million enjoy box office amplification of three to four times this amount.

That isn’t to say, you shouldn’t write a film about soccer if you live in the USA, just that you shouldn’t write in a vacuum. Have an understanding of people’s tastes and movie going habits in the market you’re writing to. It will help you write to a budget.

What shouldn’t you write? Period dramas are best left to the BBC and companies of a similar ilk. During my posts on spec script sales genre breakdowns, dramas always fare badly. Perhaps European, Australian or Canadian producers might respond better to this material. Biopics also sell poorly in the US. “Bright Star” about the life of British poet John Keats was a UK/Australian co-production clocked a $12 million box office globally, with only a third of it in North America. Fortunately, it recouped it’s $8 million production budget, so more films in this low budget range can be commercially viable.

What are the highest grossing films?

The most profitable movie to date (adjusted for inflation) is “Avatar” (action science fiction) with a global box office exceeding $2.7 billion, and rising. “Titanic”, another James Cameron movie came in second at $2.2 billion. “Star Wars – The Force Awakens” round off the  over $2 billion club at $2.1 billion.

Interestingly, North America accounts for only 27% of global box office. Coming in second, is “Gone With The Wind” (war romance) recording a global box office of over $1.5 billion, with half of it being reported in North America.

Films with universal themes such as spirituality, war, home, belonging, freedom, oppression and acceptance generally do well (see Avatar which was perceived as a backhanded attack by the Chinese authorities). Similarly, films exploring universal emotions such as love, hate, fear, passion and jealousy, and comedy which relies more on sight gags rather than “in house” jokes also tend to travel better.

Studios have subtitled their movies to sell in non-American market to varying degrees of success. They have even set up local arms of their operations, again with varying success.

That said, the film studio franchise model is fracturing. The law of diminishing returns is more relevant than ever as movie audiences are showing signs of franchise fatigue.

So go write a unique take on a familiar theme that only you can write.

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