I wrote several weeks ago about how something released this year or perhaps last year might be a signal for the future of the would-be blockbuster, a film whose respective success would spawn a decade or so of like-minded would-be tentpoles. What if I were to tell you that a possible template for future would-be blockbusters had already arrived this very year? What if I were to tell you that the future of big-scale filmmaking may be none-other than Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters? The picture is not only a hit, but has also resulted in Paramount green-lighting a sequel. Laugh if you wish, but let's take a look at what the film represents.

The rescheduled, heavily cut, and seemingly dumped January release may look and feel like both a punchline and a 'why they hate us' representation of everything wrong with popcorn filmmaking. But unlike certain re-imagined fairy-tales, it didn't cost $200 million. It cost just $50 million. As such, it would look like a break-even prospect based on its $54 million and counting domestic cume. But it's also done $151 million overseas, for a not-quite-done-yet worldwide total of $205 million. Come what may, Paramount will make a lot of money of Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters. And it will be primarily because of overseas dollars.

Yes, we all know that overseas business, which started growing in earnest around 2001, has reached a point where America is basically just another territory for the studios. We all know how Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides earned far less domestically than the previous Pirates of the Caribbean films but earned $1 billion worldwide anyway. We all know how Sony hit paydirt over the last several years with the international explosion for the recent sequels in the Resident Evil and Underworld franchises. Underworld: Retribution may have barely crossed $40 million domestic, but we're still getting a Resident Evil 6 in September 2014 because it also made $179 million overseas for a $221 million global gross on a $65 million budget.

And that's actually a step down from the astonishing $296 million global that Resident Evil: Afterlife earned in 2010. Underworld hasn't quite reached those heights, but the last entry still earned $160 million worldwide on a $70 million budget. Say what you will about the last Die Hard film, but the picture's $92 million budget means that the picture will make money even as it crashes and burns domestically while racing towards $250 million worldwide. I'd argue that the film would have done even better had it not looked like it cost $10 million, but I digress. What these films represent are B-level blockbusters that don't have to set box office records in order to be uber profitable.

Unlike Jack the Giant Slayer, Oz: The Great and Powerful, or pretty much every major film being released this summer, Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters won't have financiers nervously waiting for that $600-$800 million global payday that is required just to break even. What's different about Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters is that it's not a sequel. Oh sure it's a fairy tale reworking, but it's technically an original picture. It's also the only one of the various Alice In Wonderland cash-ins that will actually make a tidy profit. Snow White and the Huntsman grossed $396 million but cost $170 million.

What we're heading toward is an industry where American grosses are next-to-irrelevant, especially when the budgets are kept in check. The path to profitability lies not in $250 million spectacles like The Lone Ranger (which could equal the worldwide take of the first Pirates of the Caribbean and still barely break even) or $200 million dice-rolls like 47 Ronin or R.I.P.D. but in cheaper tentpoles like the $90 million Matt Damon/Jodie Foster sci-fi adventure Elysium. The scary thing for we Americans is that the artistic quality of these films, as well as the general American reception to them, is becoming less and less relevant to their profitability. This is somewhat akin to the school of thought that states that the entire world should vote for the U.S. president since they probably should have a say in who gets the power to drop bombs on their country. Audiences can say 'No thank you!' to the likes of A Good Day To Die Hard or Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters, but as long as overseas audiences say "More, please!", we're technically powerless to control what kind of big-scale films get produced in what is still technically American cinema.

With its comparatively minuscule production costs and robust foreign reception, Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters may in fact represent the future of big-scale studio filmmaking. That may or may not be terrifying to you, but just in case I'll leave you on an upbeat note. The emphasis on foreign dollars may also mean we see more stuff like Cloud Atlas. Remember that one? It stalled at $27 million over here but has already brought in $87 million worldwide with several markets yet uncounted. It may not make the film into a hit, but it means that overseas audiences may just help get the "next Cloud Atlas" funded, especially if they can do it for under $65 million this time around. And don't forget The Life of Pi, a $120 million nearly-silent 3D mediation on faith and survival. It earned a solid $121 million in the US but it just crossed $600 million worldwide. A global cinema with a bit of Cloud Atlas and a dash of Resident Evil won't be all bad, right?

Scott Mendelson
CATEGORIES Movies