Why don’t American horror movies make more money internationally?

Why don’t American horror movies make more money internationally?

At The Measured Circle, we track the box office regularly. Here’s is our list for 2019:

2019 The Measured Circle’s Most Profitable Movies at IMDb

Movies have to make $40 million in domestic gross (I say “dogro”) to get on the list…there are 19 movies on there at time of writing.

No surprise that the top two movies, in terms of the amount of profit (we calculate profit based on the reported budget vs. dogro) are Captain Marvel and Avengers: Endgame. However, combine their two budgets, and it’s over half a billion dollars.

The third movie, Us, is in one of the genres with the best return on investment. That’s when you look at the percentage of profit, rather than the gross amount of profit. Us is Double Golden (on a reported budget of $20 million)…here is our scale on those awards:

  • Dogro 2X production budget = “Money”
  • Dogro 3X production budget = “Golden”
  • Dogro 30X production budget = “Platinum” (God’s Not Dead prompted the creation of this new award)
  • Dogro less than 50% of production budget= “Underperformer”

Captain Marvel has gotten to the “Money” level (which is a considerable accomplishment for a movie with an over $100m budget), and Avengers: Endgame will get there.

Every year, there are horror movies with small budgets that have a great ROI. They tend to be a flash in the pan…having a great opening weekend, then maybe riding for a week or two more, but that’s the bulk of it.

Recently, I’ve been looking more at the international box office impact. In July of 2017, we added the “Road Winner” award, for movies which make at least two-thirds of their box office with what Box Office Mojo (which is where I get these numbers) calls international.

Success overseas is definitely part of the Marvel story. Endgame’s dogro percentage is only 28.3% (this is all based on the updating I did earlier today), and Captain Marvel is 37.6%.

Four of the 19 movies on the list are Road Winners. More than half of the movies have a dogro percentage under 50%…they make more money internationally than domestically.

Two genres tend not to make much of their money internationally: comedy and horror.

Comedy makes sense to me intuitively. It is often very language-based, making translation or even dubbing a complex proposition. Puns, in particular, are going to be difficult.

The author Scott Calvin (who is my sibling)

Scott Calvin’s Amazon Author Central page (at AmazonSmile*)

suggested (when I posed the question about horror movies on Twitter) that it could be culturally based. What is scary in one culture might not be scary in another, perhaps due to familiarity with the subject. A car, for example, might be scarier in a society that doesn’t use them regularly (that’s my example, not Scott’s) than it would be for one where they are constantly present.

I’m not sure that’s it, though. Horror movies often take something very familiar and tweak it a bit. There are several American horror movies with cars/trucks as the “monsters” (Christine, The Car, Duel…).

I would also think that a slasher is scary in any culture.

Interestingly, I would say that foreign horror movies have done reasonably well in the USA, my guess would be as well as other genres. In the past decade or two, Japanese horror movies have done quite well here. There is a whole “school” of Italian horror movies called “giallo”. The British studio Hammer has made a definite impression here.

It occurred to me that maybe a movie like Us just isn’t released internationally, but that’s not the case. When I checked, it was released in more than 50 countries, and not dissimilar to Avengers: Endgame.

Humor and horror do have a lot in common. I’ve actually taught people about the use of humor, and I find the best way to understand it is that laughter is a signal that there is apparent danger (it can be social danger), but no real danger.

That’s very tricky even within the same general culture. People make jokes about their own group (using a stereotype, for instance), and it can be seen as funny within that group (because it is clearly seen as not really representing a danger). If someone from outside the group made the same joke to the same group, it might be seen as offensive.

That is similar to what Scott had said, although I think it may be have less to do with familiarity with the threat source than with the language subtlety around it (which would be like humor)…the threat might be imperceptible to someone without a thorough grasp of idiom and shared culture.

I’m just guessing, though. 😉

I still think it’s possible that there is some strategic decision made, perhaps not to spend much on promotion…but that might be based on past experience with low box office returns.

Any ideas? Why do you think American horror movies don’t make much of their money internationally? Feel free to let me and my readers know by commenting on this post.

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Bufo’s Alexa Skills

This post by Bufo Calvin originally appeared in the The Measured Circle blog.

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One Response to “Why don’t American horror movies make more money internationally?”

  1. Scott Calvin Says:

    To riff off of my earlier comments (which you allude to here): there’s horror-movie scary, and then there’s everyday life scary.

    We don’t make horror movies about cancer–we make dramas. But we do make horror movies about fictional diseases that, e.g., turn people in to zombies.

    To work as a horror movie, it has to hit on some kind of irrational fear. If the fear is rational, it’s no longer horror. But if there’s no fear at all, then it also isn’t horror.

    I’m speculating that slasher films, for instance, might not work as well in areas where there is a LOT of violence (war zones, failed states, etc.).

    Films that focus on scary people living out in the boonies (e.g. Texas Chainsaw Massacre) require there to be boonies that the viewers could imagine wandering in to, but that aren’t so familiar that the dangers or lack thereof are well known. It’s taking the nervousness about running out of gas or getting a flat tire in an unfamiliar place and running with it. But that doesn’t work for people who never do that kind of travel.

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