Warner’s takes hot sesh

'Matrix Reloaded' helps fuel boffo overseas B.O.

The U.S. box office might be lagging behind last year, but collectively the Hollywood companies are setting a crackling pace overseas.

The majors’ results internationally have been pumped up by blockbusters that have performed more strongly abroad than at home, shrewd acquisitions of local fare and the weakening of the greenback vs. other currencies, especially the euro. Pics that bested their U.S. grosses included “The Matrix Reloaded,” “The Jungle Book 2,” “The Hours” and 2002 holdovers “Die Another Day,” “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets” and “The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers.”

It might be too early to declare the winner of the studios’ overseas B.O. derby for calendar 2003, but Variety‘stracking of the first six months shows other distribs will need a mighty tailwind in the run home to have any chance of catching Warner Bros.

Warner’s films racked up $974.6 million through June 29, a company record, beating the distrib’s previous first-half high in 2002 by 25%. “The Matrix Reloaded” downloaded $403 million, “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets” chipped in with $133 million in the early part of the year and “Two Weeks Notice” fetched $108 million.

Even without a “Harry Potter” this fall, WB looks likely to have a fairytale finish to its year, driven by a lineup that includes “The Matrix Revolutions,” Ridley Scott’s “Matchstick Men” and Clint Eastwood’s “Mystic River.” For the year-end holidays, the studio is unwrapping “Looney Tunes: Back in Action,” while the Tom Cruise starrer “The Last Samurai” will begin its international conquest in December.

“It will be a challenge to outgross Warner Bros. this year, but we are a contender and I’m sure we will have another $1 billion year,” says Columbia TriStar senior exec VP Mark Zucker.

Likewise, Disney’s Buena Vista Intl. is confident it will notch $1 billion this year. If BVI, whose first-half B.O. haul outpaced its tally for the corresponding period in 2002 by 27%, reaches that peak it will be the ninth consecutive year — an industry record.

Similarly, Fox, United Intl. Pictures (repping Universal, Paramount and DreamWorks), New Line and Miramax all are bullish about their second-half prospects. Miramax posted a company record in the first half, thanks chiefly to Oscar winners “Chicago” and “The Hours.” UIP’s films amassed $862 million, well ahead of last year, while Fox and New Line were off a bit.

“International markets this year generally are robust with the exception of Germany, which has been disappointing, and to a lesser extent Japan,” says Fox Intl. theatrical prez Scott Neeson.

“Many U.S. tentpoles are performing better overseas because they have a bit more room to breathe,” he adds. “There are very few places where you see one major film coming right after another. We can’t afford to do that because we need at least two (clear) weeks to make money.”

Fox is readying Peter Weir’s Russell Crowe starrer “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World” for November/December, while the Farrelly brothers’ “Stuck on You” will begin rolling out in December. Distrib hopes to salvage something from “Down With Love” (which bombed in the U.S., crushed by “The Matrix Reloaded”) by going out in the fall with an entirely new — and racier — campaign.

Sony’s Zucker expects sequel “Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle” to gross at least $175 million, and he has lofty expectations for “Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines,” which Sony is handling in all major markets except Japan and South Korea. Beyond that, he’s banking on “Daddy Day Care” and “Bad Boys 2,” “SWAT,” the Rock headliner “The Rundown” and Jackie Chan starrer “The Medallion.”

BVI prez Mark Zoradi estimates currency swings have boosted dollar revenues by about 10% this year. A weaker dollar does mean local marketing costs and overheads in various territories are proportionately more expensive — but that still means a nice bump for theatrical grosses when they’re converted to greenbacks.

With “Finding Nemo” smashing all-time toon records in its first engagements in Asia and Latin America, Zoradi is willing to predict the Pixar pic will cross $400 million internationally. Taking advantage of the absence of a “Potter,” BVI is launching “Nemo” in the U.K. in October and in continental Europe in November/December.

BVI is so upbeat about British comedy “Calendar Girls,” which Zoradi likens to a femme “Full Monty,” it’s releasing the pic in Blighty Sept. 5 — well ahead of its Dec. 19 Stateside debut.

The distrib is banking on “Pirates of the Caribbean” to make waves and big bucks in August through September. It has pegged Depression-era underdog tale “Seabiscuit” (shared with Spyglass internationally) for the fall and will unspool animated pic “Brother Bear” in Latin America, Oz and parts of Asia in December.

UIP prez/chief operating officer Andrew Cripps says, “We are very pleased to have had such a diversity of product showing such strength at the international box office in the first half of the year.

“With major films such as ‘The Hulk,’ ‘Tomb Raider 2,’ ‘American Wedding,’ ‘Sinbad,’ ‘Intolerable Cruelty’ and ‘Love Actually’ to come, 2003 is shaping up to be one of the best years ever for UIP.”

With “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King,” New Line is following a similar release pattern to “The Two Towers.” New Line’s hopes also are riding on “Freddy vs. Jason,” which goes out in most of the world in October/November, and on “Elf.”

Miramax Intl. is looking for a strong second half from “Spy Kids 3: Game Over,” Quentin Tarantino’s “Kill Bill,” “Scary Movie 3,” “Duplex” and “Bad Santa.”

Several studios have struck gold with local pickups this year. Warners made a killing with “Good Bye, Lenin!” from German producer X Filme, which grossed $39 million on home turf, and with Gallic pic “Chou Chou,” which made $25 million. Sony handled “Carandiru,” which minted $9.8 million to become Brazil’s top grosser, and Spain’s “The Moscow Gold,” which coined $6.5 million there. BVI racked up handy sums in New Zealand and Oz with Kiwi pic “Whale Rider.”

“We’re all looking for acquisitions because we have a better handle on what works in local markets,” Neeson says.

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