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2017's highest-grossing movies so far offer a fascinating glimpse at Hollywood’s future

The divide between worldwide and domestic audiences looks likely to grow.

xXx: The Return of Xander Cage
Vin Diesel’s return to the xXx franchise made barely a blip in the US but was a huge hit overseas.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

If you want to see where the movie business is going, just look at the top 10 grossing films internationally for 2017 so far.

Box Office Mojo
As of February 24, 2017
Box Office Mojo

The casual American movie fan has heard of just over half of these films. Resident Evil, LEGO Batman, Split, The Great Wall, Fifty Shades Darker, and xXx have all received major American releases, and two of those films — Split and LEGO Batman — have made more than half their box office in North America so far. (LEGO Batman, at least, could eventually improve its overseas take considerably.)

But the rest of the list consists of movies that have barely received American releases — and nonetheless went on to be major hits anyway. (Most of these films were released in their countries of origin in 2016, not 2017, but Box Office Mojo counts films by American release date.) Indeed, Your Name, a sweet-tempered animated romance, is one of the most successful films in the history of Japan. It seems unlikely it will replicate that feat in the US.

Now take a look at this same chart for North America only:

Box Office Mojo
As of February 24, 2017
Box Office Mojo

Films that are massive hits worldwide — like xXx — barely registered in the US. And movies that are major successes here — like Split — have done just okay overseas.

American dominance of the global film industry is harder to assume than ever

Now, it’s important not to read too much into this. The American heavy hitters for the year — including new superhero and Star Wars movies — have yet to be released worldwide, and many of the movies dominating the US box office at the moment are technically 2016 holdovers nominated for the Oscars (Hidden Figures, for instance).

But look back at 2016’s worldwide highest grossers, in which the top 10 is all American films, and you only have to drop down to the 13th spot to find The Mermaid, a terrifically fun action-comedy from Hong Kong superstar director Stephen Chow. It made more than $550 million worldwide — and barely more than $3 million in the US.

The assumption, for most of film history, has been that film culture revolves around the American film industry, rightly or wrongly. Yes, lots of other countries have vibrant film industries, and India’s Bollywood makes far more films than the major American studios. But the rise of film coincided with the rise of the United States as a pop culture superpower, and that afforded American films greater cultural weight as an export than the films of any other country.

Slowly but surely, this is changing, especially when it comes to films hailing from the increasingly robust Chinese film industry, which are aggressively exported to other countries (though less so to the US). But it’s not just films from China. Your Name is almost certainly going to be in the top 30 grossing films of 2017 (again, by US release date), while making well over 60 percent of its gross in Japan alone.

This is not to say that American releases will suddenly cease to make money overseas. But the American franchises that export best — chiefly the Marvel films and the Fast and Furious series — tend to be the franchises that were popular in the late 2000s, when Hollywood began aggressively pursuing international box office returns as a way to make back increasingly large production budgets.

This has led to scenarios where, say, a film like Rogue One, with an international cast seemingly chosen to cater to audiences around the globe, can be a massive, massive hit — but still make just over 50 percent of its box office in North America. (For whatever reason, Star Wars does well overseas but is not as massive a sensation in any country as it is in the US.)

And as franchises like Marvel and Fast and Furious lose their potency (as all film franchises inevitably do), that might leave Hollywood in a place where its budgets keep ballooning, but international audiences are increasingly likely to sample homegrown films or films from other countries’ film industries.

None of this means Hollywood is done for as a major American cultural force. It will almost certainly continue to be the most powerful film industry on the planet. But as with the country where Hollywood is based, that industry will increasingly be part of a multipolar, globalized world, where it’s less and less assumed that “the best” products come from its studios.