Los Angeles: The increasing inclusion of actors from around the world in the casts of Hollywood films is not only a nod to globalism, it’s good business.
The 2007 slate of Academy Award nominees is the most ethnically diverse ever, reflecting booming movie ticket sales around the world. The crop of nominated films includes several told wholly or in part in languages other than English, such as Clint Eastwood’s Letters from Iwo Jima and Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto.
The ensemble film, Babel, spans several countries and languages and produced an Oscar nomination for Japanese actress Rinko Kikuchi as well as for Mexican director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu and Mexican supporting actress Adriana Barraza. Other international nominees include Benin-born Djimon Honsou for The Blood Diamond, Spain’s Penelope Cruz, nominated for best actress for her role in Volver, and—vying in the same category—British stars Judi Dench for Notes on a Scandal, Kate Winslet for Little Children and front-runner Helen Mirren for her title role in The Queen.
Indigenous film industries, such as the bustling Bollywood scene in India, are also producing talented actors, directors and writers and that growing talent pool will eventually be reflected in American films as well. Water, the Canadian nominee for best foreign film, is made by Deepa Mehta.
Big-studio films once made the bulk of their revenues from ticket sales in the US. In recent years, that relationship has shifted in part because of a growing number of state-of-the-art cinemas around the world, which has increased international demand for film. American studios are making more money from the overseas box office than they do from the US take.
In 2000, Hollywood sold about $7.66 billion worth of tickets in the US, compared to $12.2 billion overseas, including Europe, Asia and Canada, according to the Motion Picture Association of America. In 2005, domestic ticket sales were $8.99 billion while international sales were $14.3 billion. Hollywood has always exported American stars overseas, but also has known that an international cast can help boost profits outside the US. “If you put an English star in your film and your film is a mediocre film, it will still play well in the UK and in all those countries that used to be part of their empire,” said Mike Fenton of Fenton Frederick Casting in Los Angeles. “If we cast a German actor and the film is a hit in some parts, in German territories, it could be gigantic.”
At the same time, indigenous film industries have continued to grow stronger in countries like Mexico, Brazil, India and China. Hindi movies, for instance, are now being released in 28 countries outside India. The result is a more competitive landscape where American films often go head to head with homegrown stars.
“Such a major part of the growth of this business has been outside the US in recent years,” said MPAA chairman and president Dan Glickman. “Beyond everything else, the economics is such that if we want to encourage these international audiences for our movies, we recognize we have to include international talent as well.”
American audiences and Academy voters have long been entranced with classically trained British actors, often giving nominations to people such as Laurence Olivier, Peter O’Toole and Vanessa Redgrave. But in recent years, nominations have been going to a growing number of international actors, such as the 2005 nomination of Catalina Sandino Moreno, of Colombia, for the film Maria Full of Grace, British actress Sophie Okonedo in 2004 for Hotel Rwanda and Iranian-born Shohreh Aghdashloo in 2003 for House of Sand and Fog.
“Ninety per cent or more of the people in this world live outside the US and the world has a lot of talented folks,” Glickman said. “Because our industry has this recipe of talent and acting and writing, we still have this ability to create product that is beloved worldwide. But the studios recognize (that) to maintain that strong force we have to take advantage of talent from all over the world, wherever it exists.”
The diversity of talent has been recognized longer by individual guilds than by the academy. The Screen Actors Guild, for instance, nominated the Italian actor Massimo Troisi in 1996 for his role in Il Postino, although the SAG award that year went to Nicolas Cage. “The industry is paying attention,” Kathy Connell, producer of the SAG Awards said. Still, it may be years before we see that diversity translate into leading roles for international stars in American films, observers say.