Who needs Hollywood when you're big in Bulgaria? In the movies fame goes with the territory.

There was much raising of eyebrows recently when it was announced that Sylvester Stallone, musclebound mega-star, had signed deals worth $50m for his next three movies, making him the highest paid actor in the world. Since The Specialist, his last movie, only took $44m at the US box-office (as against estimated $60m production costs) it was hard to see how the figures stacked up.

But then, nobody was taking into account Stallone's worldwide popularity. He may not be so big at home, but from Burma to Bulgaria, Iceland to Thailand, Stallone in action mode is a sell-out. And in Japan he's the number one box-office draw.

"The world market has never been so crucial," says Joel Silver, the producer best known for his "more bangs for your buck" action movies. "These days a movie, especially an event movie like a Batman Forever or a Schwarzenegger, can't hope to recoup its costs in the domestic [ie US] market alone. With some films the US box office won't even cover the marketing costs. Foreign sales and video, satellite and terrestrial TV sales and, increasingly, merchandising - that's where the money is made."

One corollary of this is that film stars like Stallone who aren't particularly popular in the US have huge followings in unlikely places. Meryl Streep is big in France and, at least with her recent action adventure The River Wild, Burma. Jim Belushi's continuing presence in US movies can only be explained by the fact that, as he is quick to point out, "I'm big in foreign territory sales". Indeed in Spain and Malaysia he's something of a superstar.

Why what Hollywood refers to as "foreign territories" should be attracted to certain film stars is perplexing. France's continuing adulation for Jerry Lewis, who remains their King of Comedy, can be explained partly by the non-verbal tradition of French humour - their gift to the world of comedy is Marcel Marceau, remember. But why Mickey Rourke - who has pretty effectively sabotaged his film career in the US, should still have a huge following in France is a puzzle never to be fathomed. Go figure, as Stallone would say.

"I don't think there are cultural reasons why some stars are very popular in far-flung places," says Peter Bart, editor in chief of Variety, Hollywood's trade bible. "It's just that these stars are usually more assiduous in making themselves available in certain countries. In some cases it is reinforced with an ad campaign."

Japan is the acceptable face of advertising for a number of Hollywood stars who would never dream of endorsing products in the US. Even Woody Allen has appeared in ads there, as have Stallone and Charlie Sheen.

American audiences haven't really taken to Sheen since the days of Platoon and Wall Street, but every movie the former Brat-Packer makes - from Major League through Hot Shots to Terminal Velocity - goes platinum in Japan.

"It's because the Japanese have got good taste," jokes Jeff Ballard, Sheen's publicist, adding: "Charlie goes to Japan every year. For the past five years he's been advertising Madras Shoes, Parliament Cigarettes and Tokyo Gas and Electric, so he has a good profile there. But he's big in Germany too."

Bart thinks Sheen is something of an exception. "Years ago you might get a Clint Eastwood who was huge in Europe before he was popular in the US. More recently John Philip Law was enormous in Italy. But that doesn't really happen today. It's not so much actors these days as subject matter that appeals to certain territories."

And what usually has universal appeal - Ghost, Four Weddings and a Funeral and Forrest Gump apart - are action-thrillers. Violent thrills and spills are a lingua franca everyone understands without the need for pesky subtitles or complex plotting. And macho actors - Schwarzenegger, Stallone, Chuck Norris, Steven Segal and Jean-Claude Van Damme - do best in the many macho cultures around the world. One-man-army, loner-rebel films have constant appeal.

Arnold Schwarzenegger's emergence as America's biggest star at the start of the Nineties, despite his apparent difficulties in the acting and speaking departments, was based on the worldwide popularity of the low-budget, high-violence quotient movies he'd been making in which action spoke much, much louder than words. He was a superstar in Asia long before he was a star in America.

Schwarzenegger, who took a degree in marketing, has said: "I always take care of the basics. I look in detail at the marketing of one of my movies in every territory down to the colours on the poster and the merchandising that goes with it." Which is why The Last Action Hero, regarded as an absolute flop by critics in the US, still made money around the world.

"The point the public misses," says Peter Bart, "is that a concrete way of valuing a star is that he is worth $15m if a producer can raise $15m on him in presales in ancillary markets in `odd' territories. From that perspective it doesn't really matter what their box office is in the US."

The highest paid actors tend to be the action stars. Female stars, of course, come pretty low on the Hollywood salary scale. "Women tend not to have got their brand name together," Bart says. "Sharon Stone is an exception. She was the only person to go to Cannes this year, the only woman to build a franchise alone."

Aside from Demi Moore, that is, whose worldwide popularity has been demonstrated by the success of her last four movies, each of which earned well over $100m worldwide. Sharon Stone may be paid $6m each for Bruce Beresford's The Last Dance and for Diabolique. But Moore is getting double that ($12.5m) for her role in Strip Tease, making her the highest paid actress in the history of Hollywood.

Heidi Schaeffer is the Los Angeles-based publicist for Stone and Moore. "Both are very talented actors who understand the importance of good promotion for the success of a film," she says. "And because of that both are very popular all over the world. I could say, `Yes, Sharon is big in Europe because they go for that Grace Kelly thing', but that is only part of her appeal. I could say Demi has the kind of looks which go over well in Asia but that doesn't explain it either. Maybe it's just that talent will out."

Maybe.

It used to be that in a corner of some foreign field a Hollywood star on the wane could usually still turn a profit. Robert Taylor came to England in the Fifties to make Ivanhoe and The Knights of the Round Table, films that revitalised his career.

A literary person like Stallone (the man does have 19 screenplays to his credit) might make a pun out of the tenuous link between profit and the prophet without honour in his own country. Stallone's films haven't burst the magic $100m box-office barrier in the US for a decade, since the heady days of Rambo and Rocky. Premiere, the American film magazine, reckons his latest, Judge Dredd, based on the cult UK comic, may make a relatively small $50m in the US. However, around the world it will undoubtedly do well.

Even so it must be galling for him, after 20 years making movies, to hear that Jim Carrey, the loose-limbed, rubber-faced star of Ace Ventura, The Mask and Dumb and Dumber, has already deposed him from the highest- paid actor position. Carrey, The Riddler in Batman Forever, has gone from $250,000 to $20m per movie in just over two years. As Peter Bart says: "His is the fastest ascent of any star in Hollywood - ever."

And that ascent is based largely on the success of those movies not so much around the world but in the US alone, where between them they have taken $307.8m at the box-office. Now that's popularity.

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