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Oscar’s international accent is good business

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.
/ Source: The Associated Press

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 “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.”

Big-studio films once made the bulk of their revenues from ticket sales in the United States. But that was before movies became just another weekend alternative, competing against cable television, video games, and DVDs.

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 U.S. take, and even more from DVD sales, which are international in scope.

In 2000, for instance, Hollywood sold about $7.66 billion worth of tickets in the U.S., 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 international cast members can help boost profits outside the United States.

“If you put an English star in your film and your film is a mediocre film, it will still play well in the United Kingdom 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 picture is a hit in some parts of the world, in German territories, it could be gigantic.”

At the same time, indigenous film industries have grown stronger in several foreign countries, including Mexico, Brazil, India and China.

The result is a more competitive landscape where American films often go head to head with homegrown stars for box-office business.

“Such a major part of the growth of this business has been outside the United States 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 percent or more of the people in this world live outside the United States and the world has a lot of talented folks,” Glickman said.

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.

“Because our industry has this recipe of talent and acting and writing, we still have this ability to create product that is beloved worldwide,” Glickman said. “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.

Especially with larger-budget pictures, studios need to hang a film’s success on a bankable star and for the most part, those tend to remain familiar faces such as George Clooney, Reese Witherspoon and Denzel Washington.

“If an indigenous actor from Japan or Brazil is in a picture that’s a hit, that doesn’t necessarily mean they will get a starring role in the next picture,” Fenton said. “But the more we as an audience see these individuals, the sooner a studio might allow them to carry a film.”