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Why Don't They Just Speak American?

By Steven Lloyd Wilson | Think Pieces | November 18, 2010 |

By Steven Lloyd Wilson | Think Pieces | November 18, 2010 |

Overseas box office takes tend to be a mysterious thing. We don’t pay much attention to them at all in the United States, except when looking at record breaking totals because then the numbers are bigger, and bigger numbers look cooler. And every once and a while we use them to roll our eyes at a sequel when we realize that while a terrible film barely broke even domestically, it sold three times as many tickets in Europe and thus gets another iteration. So just what movies are making the money overseas?

We’ll look at 2008 because 2010’s figures are incomplete at this point and frankly something is funky on Box Office Mojo with the 2009 numbers. If you look at their listing of top movies in each country, the top movie doesn’t line up with the actual figures if you drill down into each country. For example, Box Office Mojo lists Yes Man as the number one movie at the box office in Australia for 2009, but if you actually click on Australia and look, you’ll find that Yes Man is all the way down at #28. Avatar is number 1. Avatar is number one in pretty much every country. So, by the time-tested principle of shit-in-shit-out, I’m looking at 2008 instead. Blame Avatar. It also is the cause of violence in the Mideast and the fact that your first crush broke your heart and made out with the sixth grade class president who could barely spell his own name the day after you held hands and shared a 7-Up on the bleachers after school, ON YOUR BIRTHDAY. So, yeah, 2008 it is.

Here are the top ten movies of 2008 overseas (i.e. including every country’s box office except for the United States)

1Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull$469,534,914
2The Dark Knight$468,576,467
3Mamma Mia!$465,711,574
4Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa$423,889,404
5Quantum of Solace$417,722,300
6Kung Fu Panda$416,309,969
8The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor$298,636,863
10The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian$278,029,923

Well, for those who condemn American taste, I’d just like to point out that the number one movie in America in 2008 was The Dark Knight, not Indiana Jones and the Geriatric Childhood Killer. So, you know, we’ve got that going for us. But the other fascinating thing? Not a single non-American movie made that top 10 list. Hell, if you expand the list out a bit to the top 50, you only get non-American films at #13, #14, #19, #28, #30. That’s five of the top fifty worldwide.

Now one can make the argument that this is a bit misleading because the numbers are skewed towards countries with higher ticket prices, which tend to be Western and therefore culturally more likely to import American films. But there are a few problems with that even so. Those wealthier countries are also the ones that have money and therefore the resource base to compete with Hollywood in their native language, but they just aren’t. We’ve got the easy example of Britain and the BBC, which generates its own programming of a famously high quality. If it were just a factor of Western countries getting their own entertainment from the same place that happens to be in one of them, we wouldn’t see such burgeoning national television like the BBC.

We can also see this sort of trend if we look down at the individual national box office lists. Of the 57 countries or regions that Box Office Mojo tracks, only 17 had a non-American number one film. Even that number is a bit misleading though. Take for example Belgium, which had the number one film of Bienvenue chez les Ch’tis, a French film. Although that number 1 film was non-American, 17 of the top 20 were American. The French film industry does a bit better domestically, with only 15 of the top 20 being American imports. The UK? Unless I’m missing one, it looks like the first non-American film on their Box Office list for 2008 is The Duchess at #36. I know the BBC doesn’t make films, but for a country that can support an institution like the BBC, that kind of performance of the domestic film industry has got to just be a slap. That might be a bit unfair, one can certainly make the argument that plenty of films are made in the UK and star UK actors, it’s just that they tend to technically be American productions since that’s where the cash and the companies are in the same language and everything.

As we move East, we see a little bit more domestic production. The top 5 movies in China were domestic films, but America still landed 12 in their top 20. Hong Kong only managed 3 non-American films in the top 20, while South Korea had ten, and Japan had eleven.

The best performing domestic film sector of all? India, with 18 domestic films of the top 20. The only American films that cracked their top 20 were The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor at #12 and Quantum of Solace at #14. And ironically, India’s history of English language instruction means that the hypothesis that movies are obviously exported to places that speak the same language is deeply flawed. Depending on the particular measure, there are more English speakers in India than there are in America. Of course that’s the Queen’s English, which means every other word is crumpet, but the similarity still remains.

But there really needs to be a special kind of shame reserved for the eleven countries that had Mamma Mia as the number one film of 2008: Austria, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, Slovenia, Sweden, United Kingdom. That’s just irresponsible movie-going behavior. Overall, Mamma Mia was less than $4 million from being the overseas box office champion of 2008. Catastrophe avoided by a hair. Would any of us have really wanted to live in a world where that had come to pass?

So just which countries are making the most films? Here’s the top ten countries and how many films they produced in 2006 (which is the most recent year that UNESCO has data for):

United States673
Republic of Korea110
United Kingdom107

And who exactly is seeing films the most? Here are the top ten countries by the average number of times each person goes to the movies per year:

United States4.73999
Republic of Korea3.21148

So there is only one clear and obvious conclusion. India makes a lot of films, but Icelanders go to the theaters to watch Mamma Mia over and over and over again. Wars have been fought over less.

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Steven Lloyd Wilson is the sci-fi and history editor. You can email him here or follow him on Twitter.