The 10 Biggest Blockbusters Explain All You Need to Know About Hollywood


One has Harry Potter. Four have Johnny Depp. And they're all sequels, remakes, or directed by James Cameron.johnnydepp615reuters.jpgReuters

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows opens this week in the U.S., but if the first seven movies were any indication, the film will make 70 percent of its money outside the United States.

If you find yourself wondering why all movies these days are about superheroes, magicians, and explosions, remember that stat.

Hollywood's secret for global success, in a word: Be familiar.

In 2010, worldwide ticket revenue topped $30 billion for the first time, but only a third came from the United States. That means the biggest blockbusters have to translate for Brazilians, Japanese, and Indians. Tom Stoppard's prose might not crackle in Hindi, but pirates and black magic are a universal language.

Here are the 10 biggest international blockbusters in history, not adjusted for inflation. All were made in the last two decades. James Cameron directed the first two. Seven of the next eight are sequels. The only non-Cameron, non-sequel is a remake. Johnny Depp appears in four of them.

A global business requires global products with global marketing, as Edward Jay Epstein points out in Why TV Is Replacing Movies As Elite Entertainment. Since up to 70% of Hollywood's box office comes from overseas ticket buyers, the most successful movies need a universal selling point, and films that flop here can still rack up huge global numbers.

The eighth biggest movie in China was The Expendables, a Sylvester Stallone vehicle that ranks 448th in U.S. box office history. On the other hand, Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel (actual title) made $200 million in the U.S. and only $1 million in China, where grosses are up 900 percent since 2003, according to New York writer Annie Ferrer.

The most infamous example of a domestic bust and international hit might be "The Tourist," whose characters were maligned at the Golden Globes for being the only nominated thing "not in three dimensions." Despite earning only $68 million in the U.S., the LA Times reported that "the movie, directed by a German, filmed in Venice and Paris, featuring a largely British supporting cast and remade from a popular French film" did a $211 million overseas.

But studios are figuring out how to convert winners in both Boston and Beijing. On July 16, Paramount Pictures International announced it surpassed $1 billion in international box office for the fifth year in a row. This year, they achieved the feat in six months, led by Thor ($259 million overseas) and Kung Fu Panda 2 ($205 million) -- a superhero based on a Nordic god and a martial artist animal native to China.

If you can boil down Hollywood's secret to a word, it's familiarity. Sequels thrive. Superheroes prosper. Familiar actors have a built-in audience, and familiar stories are even more bankable. Only three of the top 100 movies of all time made more than 75% of their box office from overseas: an Ice Age sequel, a Pirates sequel, and Mamma Mia! Animals, pirates and Abba. What could be more universal?

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Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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