As Jeffrey Fleishman reports in The Los Angeles Times, “like many in the film distribution business, Mimi Steinbauer has a story — ‘funniest example ever’ — of the ingenious sleight of hand in marketing American movies to foreign lands. In her case it was Machete, a picture by Robert Rodriguez about a Mexican drug lord, an ex-federal agent and a racist Texas senator. With comedy, satire and caricature, the film was a violent and outlandish comment on America’s immigration debate.
Buyers in Thailand, however, weren’t interested in political overtones. ‘The Thais called it Machete: Splatter Blood and there was blood all over the poster,’ said Steinbauer, president and chief executive of Radiant Films International in Los Angeles. ‘I said, “You can’t call it that.” But they said it would work and it did. It wasn’t a lie per se. It wasn’t a slasher film, but they knew their audience.’
Distributing and marketing American films to other countries is a game of deciphering aesthetics and culture. What appeals to one nation may turn off another. Europe prefers sex to shootouts, while Asia and the Middle East are rapt by action and violence. Italians recoil at science fiction, Argentines drift toward the intellectual, Russians adore Minions but are cool to interracial love stories, and one distributor described American dramas as ‘the big dirty word in our business.’
Race, politics, religion all factor into how films are packaged. Steinbauer and other U.S.-based film distributors are intimate with local markets and how an American distribution campaign may have to be recast — at times dramatically so — to resonate abroad.
Understanding international preferences is crucial as Hollywood and independent filmmakers reach for larger global shares. World-wide ticket sales reached a record-breaking $38.3 billion last year. More than 70% of the film industry’s box office is generated overseas, a figure that is increasingly driving strategy and financing decisions.
Tapping into the fascinations of audiences from Beijing to Brussels is a high-stakes alchemy of language, allure, censorship, the style of a trailer, the background color of a poster and the bankability of a star such as Nicolas Cage, who despite a declining career is still a good bet in Asia. Such calculations require people with on-the-ground knowledge of specific regions — the kind of innate sensitivity you can’t learn in Hollywood.”