Hollywood studios have learned to rely on overseas ticket sales as an integral component of commercial success for a movie. The bigger the price tag on a project, the more important the foreign markets become.
Producer Jerry Bruckheimer and director Ridley Scott spent a reported $92 million to make the film version of Mark Bowden's best-selling book about the debacle that befell U.S. Army forces in Mogadishu, Somalia, in 1993. At the rate it's going, the movie should recover at least that amount in domestic ticket sales.
It was No. 1 at the United States box office this weekend, taking in an estimated $18.2 million and running its total so far to more than $60 million. It has been in theaters for five weekends, but has been in wide release only for the past two weekends -- finishing on top twice in a row now.
American movie audiences seem to like what Bruckheimer and Scott have done with the story of how 18 Americans and hundreds of Somalis were killed, when an attempt to capture two Somali warlords turned into an out-of-control firefight between U.S. Army Special Operations forces and a vastly larger number of heavily armed Somalis.
The events depicted in the movie were part of a campaign the military named "Operation Restore Hope" -- designed to capture Somali warlord Mohammed Farrah Aidid, so he could be held accountable for the use of famine as a tactic in the country's civil war.
The movie is benefiting from an extraordinary amount of "free media," a term of art that political consultants apply to news coverage of candidates and campaigns. The term is apt in the case of "Black Hawk Down," given the political challenges inherent in telling the story.
Long seen simply as a humiliating U.S. military defeat, the incident has been reframed by the entertainment industry as a shining example of valor by soldiers who -- already in harm's way -- put themselves at an even higher level of risk in the interest of honoring the principal that none will be left behind on the field of battle.
That's a romantic notion, and it gives the movie dramatic value. But audiences are likely responding as well to the high-action side of "Black Hawk Down." Heavy application of weaponry, explosions and a hyper-realistic depiction of mayhem and human misery have been known to put fannies in theater seats.
The picture got publicity money can't buy when U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld attended the premiere in Washington -- and even more of the same when it was announced that President George W. Bush and several of his top advisers watched the movie at Camp David, Md., over the weekend. The screening was arranged by Sony, the studio that brought the movie to the marketplace -- with substantial cooperation and help from the Pentagon.
Actors trained with Army personnel at three U.S. military installations before traveling to Morocco to film the battle scenes.
Ron Eldard and Jeremy Piven, who play helicopter pilots, trained on simulations at Fort Campbell, Ky. Another 21 actors who play Army Rangers got instruction at Fort Benning, Ga. A third group of actors were trained at Fort Bragg, N.C., on an urban combat course that simulated conditions in Mogadishu.
The actors were trained by Special Forces Advanced Urban Combat course instructors in the proper handling and operation of weapons used by the soldiers in Somalia. They also received breaching training -- entering locked or obstructed doorways or windows using explosives.
Bruckheimer and Scott, both world-class filmmakers, are accustomed to lending their support -- and personal involvement -- to heavy promotion of their projects. They have made themselves available to an unusual degree for extended discussions on cable news programs about the ill-fated mission in Mogadishu.
In general, Bruckheimer and Scott have stayed on message -- almost as if they had been tutored by political consultants -- that "Black Hawk Down" is, at bottom, about the sanctified pact among soldiers, and not about the relative merits of war as a human institution.
Though there has been ample, mostly positive, news coverage of the movie's release and its embrace by the America's political and military leaders, there have also been disturbing reports over the past week about the reaction the movie is getting from audiences in Somalia. Those reports may cause Sony distribution executives concern about the movie's prospects in foreign markets.
To be sure, Sony did not release "Black Hawk Down" in the East African nation. The audiences were seeing dubs of pirated videotapes. The sound was awful, but the picture was clear enough.
Audiences cheered when American forces took hits -- when personnel were killed or wounded and especially when two Black Hawk helicopters were shot down. Many who watched the movie in Somalia last week seemed preoccupied with the question of whether the United States -- along with the U.N. peacekeeping force stationed in Mogadishu -- had any business being there.
Some in the audience -- including Ahmen Abdullah -- had seen the real thing, which occurred less than one mile from the place where the bootleg video was shown. He told CNN the movie was more fiction than fact.
"It's not fair what the U.S. is trying to do," he said. "What I saw that day was different from what I see in the film today. It's not accurate."
Warsameh Abdi -- a former militiamen who fought against the Americans that day -- told BBC Online the movie brought back painful memories.
"In this fighting, I lost nine of my best friends on one spot," he said, pointing at the screen. "It was that very helicopter. It hovered on top of us and shot us one by one."
Another moviegoer complained that "Black Hawk Down" failed to present the Somalis as anything but crazed warriors.
"There's not one single word of the Somali language nor Somali music, almost nothing of our culture in the movie," said Mohamed Ali Abdi.
Film audiences in Europe, Asia and other markets may not share the Somalis' negative viewpoint on "Black Hawk Down," but neither are they likely to see the story from an American point of view.
If movie fans overseas take a more detached approach to the material than Americans have demonstrated, the movie may be in for some tough going at the international box office.
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