Going global: why Hollywood is sending its spies and superheroes far from home

Films set outside the US are making box office megabucks, but are they broadening minds?

Tom Holland is  Peter Parker,  in Columbia Pictures' SPIDER-MAN:™ FAR FROM HOME. Courtesy Sony Pictures
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The rise of social media and the internet was meant to make the world feel smaller. But, in an odd and perhaps depressing way, it has actually only helped to make it feel bigger.

Rather than underlining just how alike we all are regardless of our race, nationality or gender, it actually exacerbated the ascent of Donald Trump in America and the United Kingdom's withdrawal from the European Union, both of which were arguably predicated on xenophobia that has cut both of these countries off from its neighbours around the world.

But while walls are being built politically, in the movie world, Hollywood has learnt to embrace its international brethren. Just last week, the Men in Black franchise was rebooted with Chris Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson in leading roles, while its action was transported from New York to London, Paris, Morocco and Italy.

The aptly entitled Men in Black: International might have fared rather poorly on the domestic front, where it took an underwhelming haul of just $30 million (Dh110m), but it did gross $73.7m internationally, which suggests Sony's decision to embrace globetrotting scenes was well-founded.

Rather than Men in Black: International being a one-off, Spider-Man: Far From Home will also take Tom Holland's Peter Parker out of the United States and into Europe when it arrives in UAE cinemas on Thursday. Considering this will be the seventh solo ­Spider-Man film in just 17 years, each of which have been set in New York, it was probably more of a creative decision to take Parker on a school trip to England, Italy and the Czech Republic, instead. But the fact that Marvel is so willing to turn the superhero from the Friendly Neighbourhood Spider-Man into the globe-trotting heir apparent of the Marvel Cinematic Universe proves just how important global appeal is, even to the most successful film series in movie history.

How China's box office dominance changed the game

It should be no surprise, though, that Hollywood studios are now repeatedly and generously catering to different continents. It is just an honest reflection of how the box office has shifted over the past 15 years, as international returns have now long eclipsed domestic numbers from the United States.

Of course, it wasn't always this way. As recently as 2004, the American box office actually accounted for 51.3 per cent of worldwide takings.

Fast forward to 2018 and the United States’s $11.9 billion equated to just 28.5 per cent of global takings.

The main reason for this change has been the emergence of China as a box-office powerhouse. For decades, the country had little to no interest in releasing American movies. It even deployed stringent rules restricting films from the US being shown.

But over the past decade, these regulations have become more lenient and the country's interest in cinema has grown so rapidly, that not only does China reportedly already have the most movie screens in the world, but it is expected to overtake the US as the largest movie market on the planet by 2022. The huge potential of China's box office means Hollywood films of recent years have been specifically altered to suit that country's audiences. Michael Bay's decision to shoot parts of 2014's Transformers: Age of Extinction in China helped it amass $320m in the country, $75m more than it did in the US and 29 per cent of its overall takings of $1.1bn.

Just last year, both Jason Statham's The Meg and Dwayne Johnson's Skyscraper also thrived with the same approach. Thanks to Chinese megastar Li Bingbing and a prominent scene set at Sanya Bay, The Meg, which was stuck in development for more than 20 years before Chinese companies Gravity Pictures and Flagship Entertainment teamed up with Warner Bros to co-produce it, ultimately grossed $153m in China compared to $145m in the US, all of which helped it to a total of $530.2m worldwide.

Meanwhile, the US accounted for about a quarter of Skyscraper's $304m gross, with $98.4m coming from China as The Towering Inferno and Die Hard hybrid's international ensemble was rounded off by Singapore's Chin Han, Hong Kong's Byron Mann and ­Taiwan's Hannah Quinlivan.

Giving films an international appeal 

The appeal of both Statham and Johnson, not just in China but across the globe, should also put Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw in a healthy position when it is released on August 1, as the box-office evolution of The Fast and the Furious franchise has mirrored the increased dominance of the international markets.

In fact, you just need to compare 2001's The Fast and the Furious, which kicked off the franchise and grossed $144.5m in the US and just $62m abroad, with 2017's The Fate of the Furious, the latest instalment. This film made $225.7m in the US and a staggering $1.09bn internationally.

The series has managed to make this transition not just because of the universal appeal of watching cars going really fast in dangerous situations, but it has made sure to incorporate specific locations where the films are popular. Tokyo Drift, which came out in 2006, was obviously set in Japan, most of Fast Five unfolded in Brazil, while Furious 7's most audacious action set-piece saw a car drive between Abu Dhabi's Etihad Towers.

The Fast and the Furious's head honcho, Vin Diesel, clearly recognised this pattern, as he used the increasing dependence of the international box office to help get XXX: Return of Xander Cage the green light 15 years after the original XXX had been released.

Not only did XXX: Return of Xander Cage begin in Brazil with a cameo from footballing hero Neymar, scenes were also set in Russia, England and the Philippines, and the cast included China's Donnie Yen and Kris Wu.

All of which helped it to a global haul of $346m, while it took in just $44.9m in the US.

Although sometimes the approach fails

This approach doesn't always work, though. Pacific Rim: Uprising (2018) massively underperformed in Asia despite going out of its way to be filmed in China and set in Japan, while Crazy Rich Asians was also a huge failure in China.

The furious reaction to Jon M Chu's romantic-comedy, which was beloved in the United States, exposed some of the issues that are likely to emerge with more and more American films appealing to Chinese audiences – moviegoers insisted that Crazy Rich Asians used racial stereotyping and was completely lacking in authenticity.

Such is the pull of Asia, there have already been rumours that its sequel, China Rich Girlfriend, will look to right these wrongs by shooting in China. But with Americans still mostly playing the heroes in all of the aforementioned movies, plenty more can clearly be done to not just make them genuinely appealing for international audiences, but to also broaden the horizons of narrow-minded domestic viewers, too.