Overseas slice of 'Pi' flips Hollywood formula

LOS ANGELES (AP) — In mathematical terms, divide the circumference of the world by its diameter, and you have pi. In Hollywood terms, add a United Nations mix of ingredients and you have the blockbuster "Life of Pi."

With 11 Academy Awards nominations — second only to "Lincoln" with 12 — and the sort of global box-office receipts normally reserved for superheroes, "Life of Pi" is one of the most unusual megahits ever to hit the big-screen. Approaching $600 million at the box office worldwide, the film is by far the top-grosser among the nine best-picture nominees — with $200 million more than "Les Miserables" and "Django Unchained," its closest rivals.

"Life of Pi" has action, suspense and spectacle, but it's a thoughtful, contemplative, internalized film, a philosophical and even cryptic story that touched something in the worldwide psyche resulting in business in the realm of more traditional Hollywood hits such as "The Hunger Games," ''Men in Black 3" and "Brave."

Though backed by 20th Century Fox, the film has an international sensibility that "Life of Pi" director Ang Lee hopes will gradually become part of everyday business in Hollywood, which has a long history of telling tales — even overseas ones — with an American perspective.

"It's a global movie culture. The mainstream cinematic language was largely set up by Hollywood, Americans, therefore it's American. Some European directors, but it was an American spirit," Lee said. "I think the film language that's established here, that's the biggest obstacle when you try to do something different. You know, the world views things differently. They have different life experiences."

As does the talent behind "Life of Pi." The film is based on the best-selling novel by Canadian author Yann Martel, a globe-trotting writer born in Spain.

Lee grew up in Taiwan, went to film school at New York University and has become one of Hollywood's most-eclectic filmmakers, turning his martial-arts epic "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" into a critical and commercial smash and winning the best-director Oscar for "Brokeback Mountain."

Along with Lee, who's up for best director and best picture as a producer on "Life of Pi," the film's Oscar-nominated collaborators include American screenwriter David Magee, Canadian composer Mychael Danna, Chilean cinematographer Claudio Miranda and Indian lyricist Bombay Jayashri, who sings the theme song, which she co-wrote with Danna. The film's largely Indian cast is led by newcomer Suraj Sharma as teenage Pi Patel and Irrfan Khan as adult Pi, with French superstar Gerard Depardieu and British actor Rafe Spall co-starring.

"Every big movie doesn't need to be American. This movie had virtually nothing American about it," said Gitesh Pandya, who runs the website Boxofficeguru.com. "The more we see examples of these unorthodox films with global settings that are actually making the cash registers ring, it's a step in the direction of trying to find more of them."

"Life of Pi" follows the spiritual journey of an Indian youth who creates his own multicultural, interdenominational world view by embracing Hindu, Islamic and Christian beliefs and practices. Pi Patel's faith is terribly tested after he's shipwrecked on a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger — the story offering an even more terrible narrative as Pi later relates an alternate version of his adventures.

Sounds like the stuff of an intriguing lower-budgeted arthouse film. But shot in 3-D with expensive computer animation to create a lifelike tiger and other creatures, "Pi" cost a whopping $120 million with no guarantee it could ever pay for itself. 20th Century Fox executives ultimately decided it had enough international appeal to justify the risk.

"I'd be kidding you to say that we knew it would reach these levels," said Jim Gianopulos, Fox studio chairman. "But it's a big, beautiful world out there, and when you deliver a film that has the strength of story, the emotionality, the spirituality and the spectacle of a film like 'Pi,' people show up."

Hollywood studios once counted on domestic audiences for most of a movie's revenue. But overseas markets have been Hollywood's growth area, with international audiences now accounting for two-thirds or more of receipts on many films.

The ratio is even higher on "Life of Pi," which has taken in a respectable $108.5 million domestically but a remarkable $460 million — four-fifths of its total — from overseas fans. That includes $90.8 million in China, $45.4 million in Great Britain, $29.9 million in Russia and $19.8 million in Mexico.

The film comes four years after "Slumdog Millionaire," another surprise smash about an Indian youth facing grave challenges. "Slumdog" took in $377 million worldwide and won the 2008 best-picture Oscar.

Two such films don't constitute a new wave of Hollywood openness to foreign flavors, though.

"Remember after the success of 'Slumdog,' there was a lot of talk of a lot more films like that set in similar locations, and it just didn't happen," said Nitin Govil, assistant professor at the University of Southern California's School of Cinematic Arts. "Anytime you get a success like this, there's an attempt to kind of genericize it. But the thing that makes these successful is that they're singular. Maybe not one-offs, but certainly not formulaic."

And Hollywood remains a formulaic place, with stories mostly reflecting American tastes.

There have been small steps toward diversity in characters and a broader world view in themes, thanks partly to inroads by such overseas directors as Lee, Peter Jackson, Alfonso Cuaron, Guillermo del Toro, John Woo and Neill Blonkamp.

"I don't see that as mainstream yet. Someday. The establishment is the establishment. The film grammar was established that way. Patterns. I think for the majority of films they make, they will still follow that. That's the formula. You have to respect that if you're serious about money," Lee said.

"It's just that I think they have to be more opened up to different types of filmmaking," added Lee, who figures the enormous business "Life of Pi" did overseas will help that along — a bit. "It's a gradual thing. It's not going to dramatically change anything. But just look at the number. You have to pay attention to it. The number of what the world did on this movie. The market in America didn't dwindle. It's everybody else in the world. They stood up. They did their share."

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