In early January this year, the Guy Ritchie spy comedy thriller Operation Fortune: Ruse de Guerre — a typically frenetic Ritchie actioner starring Jason Statham, Aubrey Plaza and Hugh Grant — started earning decent figures around the world. In Russia, it topped $9 million, while in Australia it passed $4 million. In Saudi Arabia — where action films have often punched above their weight — the film helped ensure Avatar: The Way of Water enjoyed a solitary week at number one (and was only kept off the top spot itself by local hit Sattar). So far, so “yeah, so what?”
But the interesting thing about Operation Fortune’s, ahem, fortune, is that it was all achieved without a U.S. distributor in place. In fact, it was only on Feb. 13 — by which time the film had amassed $29 million internationally — that Lionsgate announced it had acquired the feature, setting a March 3 domestic release date.
While undoubtedly not its original strategy (Operation Fortune was originally due for release in 2022 with STX before the company was sold), the film is the latest example of a major movie where the once all-important U.S release simply isn’t as crucial as it once was. Where movies used to live and die on the strength of their stateside theatrical launch — international buyers would often include a clause in contracts guaranteeing a domestic release on a pre-determined number of screens as a non-negotiable — now many films are doing just fine, thank you, without a U.S. cinema release.
Good Luck to You, Leo Grande — the Emma Thompson-starring comedy-drama — went on to earn $13 million internationally after charming critics at its special screening at the Berlinale in 2022, much of that down to an over-performance in Australia. In the U.S., the film bypassed the theaters, going straight to Hulu.
“The international success of the movie has absolutely nothing to do with what happened in the U.S,” notes Alison Thompson of Cornerstone, which sold Leo Grande worldwide.
When trying to gauge a movie’s global performance, the U.S. theatrical market is not always an accurate model. Certain genres, particularly action and thriller, tend to out-perform globally — there’s a reason why those Gerard Butler and Liam Neeson movies sell out every film market — while others struggle to transfer domestic success to foreign shores. 80 for Brady might have wowed American audiences, but Paramount will have trouble even explaining who Tom Brady is to international film fans, much less convincing them to come out to watch the NFL-themed dramedy.
On the flip side, John Carey’s 2016 Irish musical dramedy Sing Street earned an impressive $3.6 million in Korea alone, more than its entire take in the U.S.
“Even after we sold [Carey’s new film] Flora and Son to AppleTV+, I was still getting Korean buyers calling me up to ask if they could get it for their country,” notes FilmNation’s Rob Carney.
The market conditions for a theatrical release can also vary widely from country to country. The U.S. studio boycott of Russia, for example, has meant new opportunities there for independent releases, which are benefiting from a lack of competition with Hollywood blockbusters.
A big U.S. release can still be a selling point — “if we close a really good U.S. deal and there’s a theatrical commitment, I am going to get better numbers internationally,” says Matthew Shreder, founder of sales and production banner Concourse Media, which launched the Nick Offerman-starring crime drama Sovereign at this year’s European Film Market — but with few indie movies going theatrical, the global industry has had to adjust.
“It creates a different mentality, because they’re just not as dependent on [a U.S. release],” says Shreder.
Away from Berlin, one of the buzziest films of the moment has just experienced an even less traditional release plan.
Winnie-the-Pooh: Blood and Honey, the microbudget slasher that became a viral hit in 2022 when the first clips were released, landed in cinemas around the world on Feb. 15, with Fathom Events having expanded its planned U.S. launch from a one-day event to a 1,500-site, nine-day-minimum release thanks to the film’s growing hype. But by the time audiences in the U.S., U.K., Japan and many other territories got to witness the sight of Pooh and Piglet on a murderous rampage, the feature — made for under $100,000 — had already earned $1 million, having launched in Mexico three weeks earlier.
“[Mexico] originally had it as a full release, whereas other places, like the U.S., started out as a one-day event,” says director Rhys Frake-Waterfield. “So the distributor thought, given they’re doing a full release and because they thought it was going to be one of the largest chunks of the box office, they could have it a bit early.”
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