'Vertical,' '102 Dalmatians' among success stories

SYDNEY — What a difference a date makes.

“Vertical Limit” and “102 Dalmatians” are among the latest batch of U.S. films that have performed much more strongly overseas than at home, thanks in large measure to canny release dates that saw those titles launch in far-less competitive environments in foreign markets than in the States.

Conversely, the strung-out sked for “Traffic” internationally is widely seen as a crucial factor in explaining why Steven Soderbergh’s gritty drama has not hooked auds abroad as effectively as it has domestically.

The wildly fluctuating fortunes of other films, like “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” “Cast Away,” “Unbreakable” and “Remember the Titans,” point up differences in cultures and tastes.Among overseas overperformers are Disney’s puppies. The lucrative foreign gross of “102 Dalmatians,” now at $115 million, is testimony to the power of the Disney brand overseas and Buena Vista Intl.’s dating strategy.

There were not many scraps left on the table for the “Dalmatians” sequel in the U.S. after audiences had feasted on “The Grinch” and “Rugrats in Paris,” where all three family films went head-to-head.

Overseas, the canine caper didn’t go directly against the Jim Carrey headliner, which in any event generally performed poorly outside the U.S., where the “Grinch” character is barely known. UIP didn’t release “Rugrats” until the Easter/spring vacation (except for France, where it debuted in February) and it still hasn’t opened in a bunch of territories.

BVI stablemate “Unbreakable” is another notable overachiever abroad. One Disney exec credits that to Bruce Willis’ star power, coming off “The Sixth Sense” (which also significantly surpassed its domestic results) and international auds’ appetite for “cerebral” stories, in this case shot in a very European manner.

Launched Dec. 8 in the U.S., “Vertical Limit” faced tough competition and did not live up to Sony’s expectations. But by positioning Martin Campbell’s mountaineering adventure in most offshore territories in late January, the distrib parlayed the pic to much greater heights abroad.

“After the holidays is a great playing time for action pictures,” says Columbia TriStar Intl. exec VP Tony Manne. Topliners Chris O’Donnell, Bill Paxton and Robin Tunney are not big names abroad and the distrib used the same campaign worldwide, so Manne concludes the release dates were the key difference.

“The film just hit a nerve, especially in Asia and Latin America, but comparatively less so in Europe,” Manne says. Notably, in Japan, the one market where it did have holiday playing time, the results were exceptional, grossing $33.6 million.

At the other end of the overseas equation is “Crouching Tiger,” which smashed records for foreign-lingo pics in the U.K. and Australia, but overall has not matched its domestic trajectory, despite its Oscar triumphs.

Columbia TriStar Intl.’s Manne, whose shingle handled Ang Lee’s film in Asia, Latin America and parts of Europe (Good Machine Intl. controls the rest of foreign), suspects that in some markets, the pic was not seen quite as “new, fresh and different” as it was in the U.S. and English-speaking countries.

“In this era of globalization, the world may be getting smaller, but there are still a lot of social and cultural differences,” notes one international distrib maven.

“Traffic” hasn’t done badly internationally, but it’s never shown the kind of momentum that propelled it past $120 million in the U.S. One Hollywood exec is convinced the drug wars saga was handicapped by being distribbed chiefly by indies, which meant there was no overall co-ordination of release strategies and ad-pub campaigns.

“When you have a film where the rights are split among many different parties, no one is running the show,” says the exec. “If that were my film, I’d have said, ‘Let’s go fast and release it in the February-March Oscar corridor.’ “

Indeed, Oscar hype probably created more noise and thus bigger rewards in the U.S. than overseas for the pic.While “Cast Away’s” overseas gross of $188 million is hardly enough to send Fox into seclusion, a pic that toplines Tom Hanks normally is guaranteed to generate more bucks abroad than at home. The survivor saga has failed surpass the domestic gross.

One theory for “Cast Away’s” overseas shortcoming is that auds in Asia and Latin America prefer films with action, so the prospect of watching one guy alone on a desert island for 2 hours 40 minutes wasn’t so appealing. Indeed, the pic’s Japanese gross of $27.8 million, while highly respectable, is below that of “Vertical Limit.”

And there’s no great surprise in the failure abroad of “Remember the Titans,” despite its U.S. success. BVI gave the Denzel Washington starrer a good shot at finding audiences by portraying it as a feel-good story in the vein of “Dead Poets Society.”

But as one distrib reflects, “Ethnicity and sports are the kiss of death” overseas.

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