How to Make a Hollywood Hit

Charting the new globe-trotting science of moviemaking

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Today, movies generate 70 percent of their revenue abroad. This has Hollywood studios playing to the tastes of viewers from São Paulo to South Korea—and employing all sorts of savvy new rules to build global box-office sensations.


Set the Movie in a Growing Market—or Nowhere.

Two of last year’s highest-grossing movies, Fast Five and Rio, were set in Brazil, a rapidly expanding market.

Three of the most successful Hollywood ventures of all time—Harry Potter, Avatar, and Lord of the Rings—take place in fantasy worlds that are home to more than one nationality.

Riff on an Established Enterprise.

In an effort to revive its tired action-figure brand, the toy giant Hasbro joined forces with Paramount and DreamWorks to make Transformers. Result: box-office and toy sales both soared, especially overseas.

Don’t Offend Billions of Would-Be Viewers.

MGM’s yet-to-be-released update of the Cold War thriller Red Dawn was originally shot with Chinese villains instead of Soviets. In deference to China’s growing clout, MGM turned the bad guys into North Koreans during editing.


You Always Want Will Smith.

Long known as the only remaining golden ticket in Hollywood, Smith appears in relatively few roles—the better to maintain his global winning streak.

Except When You Don’t.

For fantasy and superhero franchises, a fresh face is ideal—especially if accompanied by a British or Australian accent, which can feel more universal than an American one.

But the Right Co-Star Can Make Anyone Bankable.

Adam Sandler has a solid global track record largely because of his co-stars—Salma Hayek in 2010’s Grown Ups and Eugenio Derbez, a popular Mexican comic, in last year’s Jack and Jill ensured large audiences in Latin America.

Dub Animated Movies With Local Actors—or Hire Bilingual Superstars From the Start.

When DreamWorks Animation added Antonio Banderes’s Puss in Boots character to the second Shrek movie, box-office sales tripled in Spain and doubled in Mexico and Brazil. Banderas’s Puss in Boots spin-off has so far earned 72 percent of its $500-million-plus box-office haul abroad.


Film in 3-D and IMAX.

Less than 20 percent of 2011 U.S. box-office sales came from 3-D movies, but in booming markets like Russia, Brazil, and China—where 40 percent of 2011 box-office sales were from 3-D films—novelty cannot be overvalued or underdone.

Shoot in as Many Cities as Possible.

After Cars, Pixar’s 2006 paean to American auto culture, underperformed abroad, the studio set the sequel in Paris, London, and Tokyo and on the Italian Riviera.

Take Advantage of Foreign Labor.

Since Peter Jackson launched the Lord of the Rings trilogy from New Zealand, fantasy directors have been lured there by CGI expertise and tax breaks. At one point, Jackson, Steven Spielberg, and James Cameron were simultaneously making global blockbusters in the 200,000-person city of Wellington.


Pepper the Film With International Brands.

When a character gulped a Shuhua low-lactose milk in the latest Transformers movie, DreamWorks and the Chinese dairy company Yili Group both benefited—the latter from pitching its product to Chinese viewers, who spent an astounding $146 million on tickets, and the former from charging Yili big bucks for the privilege.

The Toys Can Make the Movie.

Cars performed less well than Pixar’s other films and received middling reviews, but it sold more than $10 billion worth of merchandise—thus guaranteeing a sequel. To maximize licensing opportunities, Cars 2 introduced a fleet of foreign characters, including a Citroën, a Honda, a Ferrari, and an Aston Martin.


Choose Politically Benign Titles.

When releasing Captain America: The First Avenger, Marvel worried about an anti-American reflex in Russia, Ukraine, and South Korea—so the movie was simply called The First Avenger in those markets.

Parade Your Stars Around the World.

In 2005, long before Brazil became the box-office behemouth it is today, Will Smith flew to Rio to promote Hitch during Carnival. Today, promotional stops in Rio—and in Mexico and Russia—are nearly mandatory for actors.

Use Release Schedules and Premieres to Send a Message.

The U.S. release of Steven Spielberg’s Tintin, based on a comic beloved in Europe but largely unknown in the States, was almost an afterthought, scheduled two months after the movie’s European premiere.

Studios now choose premiere locales by box-office power: Fast Five and Rio opened in (of course) Rio; Mission Impossible—Ghost Protocol in Dubai; and Transformers: Dark of the Moon in Moscow.