The Hollywood blockbusters that went bust, the low-budget underdogs that triumphed and Germany’s inexplicable affection for David Hasselhoff.
Even in this world of global homogenization, local tastes matter. The studios, with their worldwide marketing campaigns and day-and-date releases, dominate the international box office, and last year was no exception. But a hit in Hollywood can be a flop in France and for local audiences, a quirky home-grown indie can outperform a top tentpole. Here are some of the biggest international box-offices surprises of 2017.
xXx: The Return of Xander Cage cements Vin Diesel’s superstar status in the Middle Kingdom
Vin Diesel’s status as Hollywood’s biggest box-office draw in China was less apparent in the huge local success of The Fate of the Furious (which earned $392 million in China, but was massive everywhere) than in the outsize performance of xXx: The Return of Xander Cage. The third film in Diesel’s pulpy action franchise about an extreme sports enthusiast turned improbable spy, The Return opened in a distant second place in North America behind M. Night Shyamalan’s horror-thriller Split, eventually grossing $44.9 million. But in China it was a phenomenon, bringing in $164 million, which was enough to guarantee a fourth film in the franchise. The next installment will be co-financed and produced by Chinese studio Beijing Culture — and it is expected to have a Chinese co-star.
Patriotic epic The Unknown Soldier sinks Pirates of the Caribbean
Aku Louhimies’s local-language war drama The Unknown Soldier conquered the Finnish box office, slaughtering Hollywood competition in 2017. The drama, a Finnish Band of Brothers, follows an infantry unit’s tour of duty in World War II that lasts for more than three years. With a budget just north of $8 million, The Unknown Solider is the most expensive Finnish film ever made, but Louhimies’ historical epic, an adaptation of the best-selling novel by Vaino Linna, delivered, earning more than $12 million in a country with 5.5 million inhabitants. To compare, that’s three times the $4 million earned by the No. 2 film on the chart, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales. The patriotic nature of the film also tied in nicely with celebrations across Finland in 2017 celebrating the country’s centenary of independence.
Luc Besson’s countrymen actually liked Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets
Critics blasted Luc Besson’s ambitious space opera Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, and audiences in the U.S. agreed with them. The $180 million sci-fi epic starring Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevingne earned just $41 million stateside. But in France, fans turned out to support their country’s best-known filmmaker. Valerian sold more than 4 million tickets in Gaul, earning $36.8 million, making the film the second-most successful title of the year (behind only Universal’s Despicable Me 3). It likely helped that French audiences were familiar with Valerian‘s source material — the comic books created by French writer Pierre Christin and artist Jean-Claude Mezieres.
But 2017 also saw a rare miss by another beloved French talent. Knock, a romantic period drama starring Omar Sy (known to American audiences for turns in Jurassic World and X-Men: Days of Future Past) and current “it” girl Ana Girardot, looked like a sure-fire hit on paper. But the feature from director Lorraine Levy earned just $4 million in France after being panned by critics for being tone-deaf about racial relations in 1950s France.
The Hoff helps Baywatch stay afloat
Germans baffling but unwavering love of David Hasselhoff provided one small bright spot for Baywatch. The R-rated adaptation of the 1990s TV series drowned domestically, despite the combined star power of Dwayne Johnson and Zac Efron, earning just $58 million. But Hasselhoff’s local fan base — the star of the original TV series has a cameo in the film — brought them out in Germany, where the film grossed $19.5 million, more than in any other foreign market. Baywatch was the 10th highest-grossing film of 2017 in Germany, beating out such tentpoles as Thor: Ragnarok ($19.2 million), and Transformers: The Last Knight ($16.3 million). Johnson was so impressed, he personally thanked the German fans via Instagram.
The Fate of the Furious runs out of gas
The Fate of the Furious, the latest in Universal’s seemingly unstoppable car chase franchise, grossed $392.8 million in China and was the biggest Hollywood release in the country last year. But the action-soaked audiences in neighboring Hong Kong were non-plussed. Fate of the Furious grossed just $6.1 million on the island, down from $7.1 million in the territory for the last installment, Furious 7, and only good enough for sixth spot on the overall box-office chart.
The surprise local hit was the indie Mad World from director Chun Wong. Made for less than $300,000, the drama, about a bipolar stockbroker struggling to reconcile with his estranged father and ex-fiancee, earned $2.2 million at the Hong Kong box office.
Horse racing epic Kincsem is quick out of the gates
A Hungarian story about a famous equine thoroughbred, Kincsem raced to break box-office records in Hungary in 2017, taking a total of $2.3 million following its release in May. A homage to the country’s greatest ever racehorse (Kincsem, foaled in Hungary in 1874, went on to win 54 races from 54 starts) the lavish costume drama, directed by Gabor Herendi and distributed by Forum, had audiences flocking to the cinema. The film also proved another good bet for the National Film Fund, headed by Budapest-born Hollywood producer Andrew G. Vajna (Evita, Nixon), which provided $7.8 million of the film’s $11.2 million budget.
Marvel’s Guardians sequel outgunned by two quirky local releases
Tiny Iceland nearly doubled its market share for local films in 2017 thanks to a pair of very different homegrown features. Oskar Thor Axelsson’s thriller I Remember You (pictured above), based on Yrsa Sigurdardottir’s best-selling novel, earned some $720,000 to take top spot on the charts, followed by Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurosson’s Under The Tree, a comedic tale of a neighborhood spat taken to extremes, which earned around $650,000 locally. The top-performing studio title, Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol. 2, came in third, with $450,000. Overall, Icelandic films accounted for just over 12 percent of the local box office, compared to 6.6 percent in 2016.
Indie satire Newton bests Bollywood
India saw a major surprise hit in 2017 with the independent film Newton, which featured an offbeat plot hardly seen in formulaic Bollywood fare. Directed and co-written by Amit Masurkar, the pic starred rising actor Rajkummar Rao as an honest government officer who faces all sorts of unexpected obstacles when he’s sent to supervise elections in a remote, conflict-ridden jungle.
Newton’s release couldn’t have been more timely as it opened the day it was selected as India’s submission for the 2018 foreign-language film Oscar. Capitalizing on the resulting media attention and strong critical praise, the movie’s total box-office figure hit an estimated $5 million, making the film (made for an estimated $1.4 million) one of the year’s most profitable releases.
Wonder Woman couldn’t lasso local audiences
Wonder Woman was a global phenomenon, grossing more than $800 million worldwide, becoming the No. 3 top grosser of the year in the U.S. The success of a film about a woman who saves the world encouraged young girls everywhere that they can be whatever they want to be.
In Italy, not so much.
Wonder Woman only took in $3.9 million at the local box office, coming in at 39th on the Italian chart for 2017, well below films including The Mummy, Justice League, Spider-Man: Homecoming, Thor: Ragnarok and The Fate of the Furious. It fared just slightly better than The Emoji Movie, which made $3.8 million in Italy. Gal Gadot is even a known actress in the country, as Fast and the Furious, in which she co-starred, is one of Italy’s most-watched tentpoles.
It seems Italians were not quite ready to throw their support behind the female-driven superhero film. Several media and political figures were criticized after the #metoo movement for comments which placed the blame on victims, showing that 2017 was not the year for change in this historically patriarchal country. Indeed, one of the biggest local hits of the year was the slapstick comedy Poor But Very Rich from director Fausto Brizzi, dubbed by Italian media as the Italian Harvey Weinstein after numerous women came forward with allegations of harassment. Brizzi’s film earned $6.2 million at the Italian box office, easily topping Wonder Woman.
Pixar’s Coco strikes a chord (to the tune of 1 billion pesos)
Pixar’s Coco had all the makings of a box-office hit tailor-made for Mexican audiences: a Day of the Dead theme, a family-friendly toon with familiar locations and a voice cast featuring beloved local talents like Gael Garcia Bernal.
Released a week ahead of Day of the Dead festivities in early November, the acclaimed Disney-Pixar movie far exceeded expectations by becoming the top-grossing film of all time in Mexico and remarkably, it took just three weeks to dethrone the market’s previous record holder, The Avengers. Still playing in theaters after more than 11 weeks, Coco has earned north of $57 million in Mexico, and it recently accomplished the unprecedented feat of topping the 1 billion-peso mark. Marvel’s The Avengers earned 827 million pesos ($43 million) on its historic run in 2012.
Coco has struck a chord with Mexican moviegoers thanks in large part to years of on-the-ground research by co-directors Lee Unkrich (Toy Story 3) and Adrian Molina (Monsters University). During the research process, they spent considerable time visiting towns throughout Mexico (to help create realistic backgrounds) and they delved deep into the culture (including interviews with Mexican families about Day of the Dead traditions) in order to lend more authenticity to the story.
The Last Warrior becomes highest grosser ever (with a little help from Disney)
Russia’s surprise domestic hit of 2017, The Last Warrior, took in just under $30 million to make it the highest-grossing Russian-language feature ever and putting it in second place overall for the year behind Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales ($41 million). The link between the two films? Both were made by Disney. The Last Warrior is Disney’s first big Russian-language feature and was distributed by local Disney/Sony shingle WDSPR — but the fantasy tentpole from director Dmitriy Dyachenko is very much a Russian film. The fairy tale focused on Ivan, a liberal hipster from Moscow who suddenly finds himself transported to a mythical world where immortals from Slavic folklore are locked in a battle between good and evil. The Last Warrior proved that Russian audiences have an appetite for a Hollywood take on their country’s rich history of storytelling.
Brits find the love for God’s Own Country
While the U.K. box office in 2017 largely stuck to its standard trick of mirroring the U.S., there were a couple of local standouts. Two low-budget indies from first-time directors — Francis Lee’s God’s Own Country and William Oldroyd’s Lady Macbeth — delighted the industry by breaking all expectations and passing the $1 million mark.
A story of gay sexuality set against the hardscrabble lives of traditional farming families and the harsh splendor of the isolated West Yorkshire countryside, God’s Own Country (pictured above) rode critical raves to a $1.17 million take at the British box office and three British Independent Film Awards, including best actor honors for Josh O’ Connor and best debut screenwriter honors for Lee. Oldroyd’s period drama, based not on Shakespeare but on Nikolai Leskov’s acclaimed novella Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, successfully shifted the action from Russia to 19th century rural England to win over U.K. audiences and earn $1.3 million at the local box office. The film also picked up a trio of Indie Brits, including best actress honors for Florence Pugh and best screenplay honors for Alice Birch.
Less surprising was the boffo success of Paddington 2. The painfully charming sequel, which bowed Nov. 10, has already outperformed the first feature adaptation of the children’s classic, grossing more than $51 million in its home territory.