It was a crisp morning in the fall of 1979 when I first learned that I had won the district-wide “Why I love America” essay contest. I was a sixth grader at the now defunct Valley View grade school in Overland Park, Kansas and I had never been recognized for anything before (outside of talking in class, occasional tardiness, and being the last kid to learn how to tie my shoelaces). I still remember my mom leaving her shift at 7-11early so she could watch me recite my love for the red, white and blue to a cafeteria full of students, teachers and lunch ladies. The experience was amazing, and I left it swelling with the false belief that anything I created from thereon out would work flawlessly…

Such a belief proved to be fatal 21 years later in 2000, when I made my first (and last) short film called “Baptized at Lucky Lube.” My film was based on a true event when an inspired woman in the waiting room at Jiffy Lube declared that my left hand was “crippled, because I wasn’t Christian,” then she proceeded to pull out a pocket Bible from her cut-offs and offered to baptize me in the nearby water cooler. I was so sure that my personal story would get me noticed, that my ears fell deaf to the people close to me who warned me otherwise. After all, I was an “award-winning writer”… I was also an idiot who was overtly wrong. Although my short went on to play in over 20 film festivals in six countries, spawned another project and a road trip to the Yukon, and cemented my friendship with my lead actor Paul Griffin (who is now a celebrated novelist in New York City), it failed to get me where I wanted to go. None of the film festivals I got into were “game changers,” and none of the game changers (Cannes, Sundance, Berlin, Toronto) wanted my film. I was left stranded with a $36,000 six-minute film with an 18-minute accompanying CD soundtrack –that would spend its life cluttering a closet at my parents’ home.

My lesson learned on my short ten years ago is still valid for features today: Only certain genres sell well internationally. What are these “best bet” genres?

1) Action – which are always a slam-dunk.
2) Thrillers – which often do well.
3) Sci-Fi – which are the hottest genre these days, since replacing the dying demand of horror films.

The reason why these genres perform so well is because audiences don’t have to know the language in which these films were made, in order to understand their basic story. Think about it. You wouldn’t need to know English to follow “Die Hard,” “Fatal Attraction” or “Star Wars.” The opposite is also true, as in the cases of “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” and “Life is Beautiful,” American audiences didn’t need to know Chinese or Italian to follow their basic stories through action and visuals.

Furthermore, this “best bet genre” rule doesn’t only apply to studio releases, as my company has enjoyed success distributing smaller films within these genres. Namely, we distributed a small Australian action film called “Among Dead Men,” which has already made several times its budget internationally. We also executive produced and distributed an independent sci-fi film called “The Men Who Fell,” which actually is “huge in Japan”, and we’re now prepping the late 2010-early 2011 release of “Nydenion,” a $4 million dollar German based sci-fi film that will surely perform extremely well. Thus, the best way to ensure that you have a shot to make your money back is to make a film within these well performing genres.

If you think I’m saying that all films should be action, thrillers or sci-fi based, let me make it abundantly clear that I am by no means suggesting such a horrific thought. Many other genres are so vital to the enrichment of our society, culture and sanity, that life itself would be far less enjoyable if we were never graced with such gems like “Slumdog Millionaire,” “Slacker,” or “My Left Foot”. But, since my mission here is to help you go bionic, part of doing so is to understand what sells and why.

This brings us to the ugly topic of what genres generally won’t sell internationally. When it comes to comedies, romantic comedies, dramas, coming-of-age films, personal stories, family films, horror films and most documentaries – you have a better chance of winning the lottery than you do of enjoying healthy sales internationally. There are always exceptions, but they occur so rarely that if you’re blessed to be one of them, you have won the lottery.

I’ve personally experienced several instances when indie films made in the “difficult genres” have fallen flat overseas, as my company has represented many of these otherwise wonderful films. You have no idea how unpleasant it is for me to sit across from a filmmaker in my office and tell them that the film they maxed out their credit cards for, sold their car for, and in some cases put up their house for, is going to make less money overseas than it cost them in gasoline to drive over to my office. That visual may be harsh, but trust me – it’s true.

The reason that most genres don’t work overseas is because their content is specifically designed to work within the country they were made. For example, in comedies, what’s funny in Los Angeles may not be funny in Zimbabwe and in romantic comedies, what’s romantic in Nashville may be offensive in China. (Filmmaker beware! Romantic comedies are the kiss of death for international sales, as no other genre is harder to sell).

Family films are difficult to sell as well, because the very definition of what makes a family varies from country to country.

As for horror films, they’ve gone the way of the 80’s mullet (something I shamefully sported back then). In fact, there’s been so many horror films made lately, that they have saturated their own market to the point that they’re virtually worthless. Of course, you can still sell a standout slasher film every now and again, but it’s clearly become more of an exception rather than a rule.

Then we have dramas and documentaries, both of which usually flame out abroad because they require deep thought from the viewer – which cuts out the largest portion of moviegoers (men 14-25).

One way to combat this relentlessly painful uphill battle of selling difficult genres abroad, is to infuse them with “star power,” which, given the right star, can definitely change your fate. Although I’ll discuss strategies of packaging the right talent for your film in a future post, I will say that attaching star power, even for documentaries, will surely help your sales.

My company has actually done very well with star-driven documentaries. “Whaledreamers,” which was produced and narrated by Julian Lennon (Julian also did the music) and “Dalai Lama Renaissance,” which features his Holiness The Dalai Lama, with Harrison Ford narrating, have both sold throughout the world. But, even with “star power,” documentaries will usually never perform as well as narrative features, especially those narrative features that are made within the action, thrillers, or sci-fi genres.

In closing, I strongly feel that filmmakers should make the films they wish to – I just think it’s equally as important to know what you’re getting into before you bet the farm on your idea. Then again, it may not matter how well you do overseas, if you make the next “Napoleon Dynamite” or “Paranormal Activity” and sell the hell out of it domestically…

Thanks again for lending me your eyes, and I hope you see my next post again next Tuesday.

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  1. Erik says:

    John W,
    I’m not really surprised by that at all. I haven’t seen [REC], Ringu, or The Host, but I can tell you that Let The Right One In was at heart a love story wrapped in a horror story. My understanding is that The Host was political commentary wrapped inside a monster movie.

    There’s nothing really wrong with formulaic storytelling, but the modern American horror film has dropped anything that makes the characters or story resonate. Add to that the flooding of the market on horror films, and you have a general saturation mixed with exhaustion by the filmgoing public. With the films you mentioned, there was something more to hook people in, I think.

  2. John W says:

    I’m surprised about horror not doing well overseas considering that so many of the best horror films in recent years like Let The Right One In, [REC], Ringu, and The Host are all from overseas.

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