Pic opens $38 mil ahead of 'Two Towers'

Even as winter starts, there’s a sunny outlook worldwide for “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King.”

Peter Jackson’s finale of the “Rings” trilogy has already shown potent drawing power in all 28 foreign markets, setting records in virtually every territory and cuming $125.9 million on 7,403 screens in its first five days. That’s nearly $5 million ahead of Sunday’s estimate and an astounding $38 million above the first five days for “The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers.”

But the success of “Return of the King” had a predictable downside for competing pix in the same markets. Fox’s “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World” saw its fourth-week grosses in Germany plunge 70%. Sony’s “S.W.A.T.” suffered a 77% decline in its third week in the U.K., while its German grosses slid 61%.

Weekend total for “S.W.A.T.” was $4 million, pushing its foreign cume to $76.3 million. “Master’s” weekend amounted to $3.6 million, lifting overseas cume to $50.5 million.

Counterprogramming efforts

Attempts at counterprogramming against “Return of the King” generated modest returns. BVI launched “Freaky Friday” in the U.K., generating a modest $2.1 million at 349 playdates. In Australia, where “King” debuts Friday on Boxing Day amid massive anticipation, UIP opened “Peter Pan” with $1.2 million at 234 engagements, following a campaign highlighting the project’s lensing in Queensland.

“King” set opening-day and weekend records in the U.K., Germany, Spain, Denmark, New Zealand, Sweden and Switzerland. Blighty led the way with $25.9 million at 1,299 playdates, followed by Germany’s $22.6 million at 1,337 engagements.

“We were definitely expecting to do well, but this is far bigger than what we were forecasting,” admitted Camela Galano, president of New Line Intl. “We are doing exceptionally in every single market.”

Galano noted pic’s performance is especially impressive given the 200-minute running time for “King.” The length has meant one less daily showing for French exhibs, but that market still generated $13.9 million at 975 screens for the territory’s biggest opening of 2003.

Surpassing ‘Towers’

In only five days “King” has already managed to take in 22% of the entire $581 million foreign cume for “Towers” and 23% of the $551 million foreign cume for “The Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Rings.” Passing those numbers won’t be a slam-dunk, but indications so far are solidly positive:

  • Interest in “King” looks likely to remain high, thanks to strong reviews and the fact that it’s the closing chapter of the trilogy.

  • Red-hot awards buzz as “King” emerges as one of the early Oscar frontrunners. With the compressed kudos season, “King” is positioned to reap the benefits at the box office earlier than both “Towers” and “Fellowship.”

  • Repeat viewers. “We are already starting to see customers going for a second time,” Galano said.

With the five-day domestic gross at $124.1 million, worldwide cume for “King” hit $250 million right on the nose — $47 million ahead of the previous record set last month by “The Matrix Revolutions.”

‘Titanic’ record daunting

“King” isn’t likely to challenge the all-time worldwide record of $1.83 billion set by “Titanic,” but the strength of its launch gives “King” a realistic shot at overtaking “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” as No. 2 worldwide grosser at $967 million. “Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace” is third at $923.1 million, just ahead of “Two Towers” at $923 million.

As for the rest of the market, BVI’s “Finding Nemo” managed to avoid the “King” blitz as it reeled in $22.5 million, lifting its foreign cume to $362.4 million. “Nemo,” which was No. 1 at the overseas B.O. for five consecutive frames before the launch of King,” needs about $93 million to eclipse Disney’s “The Lion King” as the leading international animated grosser.

“Nemo” even performed well in direct competition against “King” in France, showing just a 15% decline in its fourth weekend to $6.5 million, pushing its cume to $40.5 million. In Japan, where “King” won’t launch until Feb. 14, “Nemo” led for the third straight frame with $5.8 million to push its total to $33.4 million.

The Japanese market also remained strong for Warner’s “The Last Samurai,” with its third weekend edging down only 1% to $4.6 million and its cume at $29.1 million. By contrast, the third weekend of the Tom Cruise starrer slid 48% in the U.S. to $7.3 million as its domestic cume totaled $59.1 million.

In Italy, where “King” opens Jan. 22, Miramax launched “Master and Commander” with $1.7 million at 399 playdates.

Miramax also reported “Kill Bill Vol. 1″ took in $1.1 million at 914 screens, lifting foreign cume to $93.9 million in 38 territories, including $21 million in Japan.

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