Tue, Jul 06, 2004 - Page 16 News List

Hollywood looks abroad to stay afloat

Needing to recoup huge production budgets and responding to a backlash against overtly American-themed movies,studios are looking to foreign actors to secure international box-office receipts

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , LOS ANGELES

From left to right, Australia's Eric Bana, American Brad Pitt and English heartthrob Orlando Bloom were cast in Troy for their international appeal.

PHOTO: NY TIMES

When King Arthur, Hollywood's big-budget retelling of the legend opens on in the US tomorrow, its main stars will not be American. Keira Knightley and Clive Owen, famous in their native Britain, play Guinevere and Arthur and share the Round Table with Til Schweiger, a popular German celebrity and television star who plays the knight Cynric.

Walt Disney Studios, which produced the film, plans to open the movie in 53 territories, mostly in the weeks soon after its American debut. Given the price tag for King Arthur of nearly US$120 million, Richard Cook, the chairman of the studio, said having stars who are popular abroad was more important than ever.

"If we thought it would only reach a domestic audience, we wouldn't have made it," Cook said.

As Hollywood stakes more of its success on selling films abroad, filling starring roles with international celebrities is becoming more common. Around the World in 80 Days, which opened recently in a limited number of countries, is a UN of actors, including stars like Jackie Chan from Hong Kong and Steve Coogan from England, as well as cameos by the German film director Wim Wenders and California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who plays a Turkish prince. The movie has failed to ignite with moviegoers here, making it even more critical for the movie's investors to recoup their investment abroad.

"Hiring international talent is a movie-making law," said Stephen Moore, president of international film and home entertainment for Twentieth Century Fox.

As recently as two years ago, international ticket sales were around 40 percent of the worldwide box office, studio executives say. Today, international sales more often account for 60 percent or more of box-office receipts. And as production budgets soar -- some as high as US$200 million -- and the number of big-budget movies rises, the pressure on worldwide sales is growing.

In Troy, Brad Pitt, whose movies have rarely earned more than US$100 million at the domestic box office, was cast as Achilles largely because of his international appeal, studio executives at Warner Brothers Pictures said. He starred alongside Eric Bana, who plays the sympathetic Hector and is well known in his native Australia; the British actor Orlando Bloom, one of the latest heartthrobs for teenagers, played Paris.

Consider, too, last year's The Last Samurai. That movie brought in US$111 million at the US box office, which was disappointing given its US$140 million production budget. Then, many in Hollywood predicted the movie would lose money. Instead the movie exceeded expectations in Japan, bringing in US$127 million. That raised the worldwide total to US$455 million.

Jeff Robinov, president of production at Warner Brothers, which is owned by Time Warner Inc., said the Japanese actor Ken Watanabe was hired for the film because he was widely recognized in Japan and would attract moviegoers there. "Clearly, the market responded," Robinov said.

But the changes in casting seem also to reflect an underlying shift in global attitudes toward American popular culture. In the 1980s and early 1990s, movies that sold well abroad starred distinctly American heroes, like Sylvester Stallone of the Rambo series and Bruce Willis in the Die Hard movies. Foreign stars were relegated to small parts, most often the villain who dies at the end.

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