Memoirs of a Geisha did well in foreign markets.
Memoirs of a Geisha did well in foreign markets. - 
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MARK AUSTIN THOMAS: Sometimes the box office that counts most for a film isn't here in the US but overseas. The DaVinci Code grossed $217 million here in America, but raked in over $520 million in foreign box office receipts. Mike Speier is an entertainment editor for the Daily Variety. I asked him when overseas box office started to have such a big impact on American films.

MIKE SPEIER: When the studios became part of conglomerates, which you'd kind of argue about 15 years ago maybe, when every studio started to be owned by something bigger instead of on its own, that's when box office overseas became so important because now all of these studios need the most money they can get all at once because they are now owned by major, major corporations who need the money.

THOMAS: Explain this a little bit more. Why do they need more money because they're owned by a bigger company?

SPEIER: Because they have bigger overhead. They have - All these conglomerates own so many units. So many people work for them. They're not just an independent studio anymore. They are now run by major, like Sony owns Columbia, so now Sony is the bottom line. They have to appease shareholders and major, major money and major, major box office all around is what they need to survive. That's why they released Spiderman 3, Shrek 2.

THOMAS: Well, that leads me to the next question which is then why aren't all studios always making nothing but blockbusters?

SPEIER: Because there's also creative people in the film industry . . .


SPEIER: . . . and they want to have these small . . . believe it or not. A, they're independent studios. They're independent studios that want to make films. And actually, the major conglomerates do make smaller films because they have niche arms, we call them. Universal has Focus Features which make things like Brokeback Mountain. We have Sony Pictures Classics.

THOMAS: We've got to have something that can run in Laemmle.

SPEIER: Exactly. And you have big, big films to make the money while you have the nice prestige and the Oscars for the smaller films.

THOMAS: Are the DVD sales just as lucrative for foreign markets as the box office revenue?

SPEIER: They are, except America is by far the biggest DVD rental, sales, everything on earth. So yeah, while it's gravy for these studios to have this extra DVD money that never existed seven, eight, nine years ago, America is still such a big chunk of that.

THOMAS: Can you give me some examples of movies that did well overseas that didn't do too well here?

SPEIER: Yeah. I mean, there's a few recent examples. The Island, which is the big Michael Bay kind of disaster in America which everyone kind of yelled at and screamed at, wrung their hands over, but in the end, this is a movie that got more than $100 million overseas. Now . . .

THOMAS: In what country?

SPEIER: Added up, and that's the point, actually, is that once the bottom line is tallied up, even though it only makes, let's say, $30 million over here, they'll argue . . .

THOMAS: It made that much here?

SPEIER: Yeah, surprisingly. They'll argue that $100 million is a $100 million. It doesn't matter where it comes from. But, you know, that's an example of a movie that in the end did okay. Then there's some movies that, something like Memoirs of a Geisha which everyone expected to do really, really well in America, but it only made about $50 million. It didn't do very well at all for a very major movie come Oscar time, but overseas it almost doubled that, and so that's another movie that, in the end, $150, $200 million. Money's money and that's really the bottom line.

THOMAS: Mike Speier's an entertainment editor for the Daily Variety.