The Iraq Movie Surge

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I'm Matt Holzman with The Business Brief, a guide to what's happening in and around the business.

The $100 million action thriller Green Zone opened the weekend before last, and so far it's brought in an unimpressive $24 million domestically. But perhaps even before executives at Universal green-lit Green Zone, they had to have known that it wasn't going to make a lot of money.

In the last five years, there have been at least 18 films in some way related to war in the Middle East released by the big studios, and/or directed by a big director and/or featuring big stars. And all of them have failed at the domestic box office. In 2005, Jarhead did respectably, but as time's gone by, it's been downhill from there. Americans have tired of hearing about soldiers being killed, and they're staying away from movies that smell even slightly of the subject.

So even though Green Zone had Oscar-nominated director Paul Greengrass at the helm and Oscar-nominated actor Matt Damon in the lead, the movie was as doomed as a front-line marine with a water pistol.

So why did Universal invade Iraq even with clear evidence of weapons of mass financial destruction?

Marketing executives were framing the film early on as Jason Bourne in the desert after all, it had the director of two of the three very successful adaptations of Robert Ludlum's very successful novels and the star of all three. And the trailers bear that out -- lots of Matt Damon, lots of gunfire and no mention of Iraq. The plot is even very Bourne-like a military officer gone rogue to uncover the truth!

Still the suits at Universal knew that whether its action like The Hurt Locker or Body of Lies, or drama like in the Valley of Elah or A Mighty Heart if it reminds us of the mistakes we've made in the Middle East, Americans just ain't buying. Again, this is just the major releases there are a number of smaller films and a long list of 50-plus documentaries that are subject unto themselves.

So why did universal make Green zone? Well, careful listeners would have noticed that I've been talking about domestic box office. And although we here in the States would like to think we're alone in the world, foreign box office has increasingly become Hollywood's vaca de dinero.

Every one of these Gulf War-related movies that got a real foreign release made some or a lot of money overseas. Yes, Green Zone has made only $25 million here so far, but it's also made $20 overseas. In 2007, Paul Haggis' little film In the Valley of Elah made only $7 million here but it brought in $23 overseas.

You don't have to have a double PhD in international relations and psychology to see why this might be.

No matter how arrogant we may be militarily, politically and economically, the world continues to love our music, movies and TV - from Britney Spears, to CSI to Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel. And technology is only making access easier and easier.

There was a time not too long ago that if you lived in Nairobi and wanted to see an American film, you had to wait months after it opened and then pay some guy in the street for a twelfth-generation video cassette. Now, if you have the money, you can go to theater and see it about the same time we see it here. And if you don't have the money, you can download a pirated copy online sometimes before it even opens.

I think that we are missing a huge opportunity here. The world knows us more through our movies than our foreign policy. Which is why I wish to make this modest proposal: fire Hillary Clinton and install the head of a studio as the Secretary of State. And instead of spending money on wars and economic aid which always seem to backfire we should concentrate on making movies that seem self-critical but ultimately have a pro-USA message like Green Zone. We'd lose our hats on domestic box office but we'd win the hearts, minds and money of the world.

I'd love to know what you think. You can comment on today's Business Brief or subscribe to the podcast at There's also a list of the movies I've been talking about and their box office results. For KCRW, I'm Matt Holzman.

Year/Film/Domestic/Foreign/Budget (where identifiable)
2010: Green Zone $25/$20/$100
2009: The Hurt Locker $16/$10/$15
2009: The Messenger $1
2009: Brothers $29/$10/26
2008: Stop Loss $11/$25
2008: The Lucky Ones $.3
2008: Redacted $.65/$.74
2008: Body of Lies $39/ $76/$70
2008: Traitor $24/$4/$22
2007: Grace Is Gone $.6/$.9
2007: Rendition $10/$17
2007: Lion for Lambs $15/$48/$35
2007: Charlie Wilson's War $67/$52/$75
2007: In the Valley of Elah $7/$23/$20
2007: A Mighty Heart $9/ $10/$16
2007: The Kingdom $48/$39/$70
2005: Syriana $51/$43/$50
2005: Jarhead $63/$34/$72
$ In millions, rounded to the nearest million



Matt Holzman