Kid pics get the upper hand o'seas

Heading into the Christmas break, many exhibs in Europe were lacking festive cheer. Some had expected “Ocean’s Twelve” to mke bigger waves in its debuts, and no one was uplifted by “Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera.”

In Spain, programmers lamented the absence of strong kidpics, noting “The Incredibles” is skewing more to adults and “The Polar Express” is running out of steam.

But exhibs in Italy were on a high as weekend takings soared by 68%, powered by rookies “Shrek 2,” local laffers “Do You Know Claudia?” and “Christmas in Love” and “Ocean’s Twelve.” The first “Shrek” was no B.O. giant in Italy, so execs hailed the sequel as the No. 1 pic through the holidays. “Shrek 2′s” cume vaulted to $452.2 million, ahead of domestic’ s $436 million.

Millions of people in Europe have seen the stage musical, so why didn’t folks turn out for the Joel Schumacher-helmed “Phantom” pic as it bowed in Germany, Austria, Spain and Italy? Execs said many people like the real thing, not the film version, as “Chicago” and “Moulin Rouge” proved in Germany. Mainstream auds in Germany have difficulties with English-lingo lyrics in Hollywood musicals, which the “Phantom” producers tried to counter by dubbing with professional German singers.

While “Phantom” held stoutly in its soph sessions in the U.K. and South Korea, some execs in Blighty say it’s tough for films with primarily femme appeal to compete with the distractions of Christmas shopping and parties, so it might have been better to delay the release to capitalize on possible Oscar noms.

The weekend’s champ, “Ocean’s Twelve,” made off with $28.9 million as it launched in 27 countries, seizing the top spots almost everywhere except Italy. Crime caper opened below its predecessor in euros in France, Germany, Spain and Sweden, but well ahead in dollars thanks to favorable exchange rates.

“Many viewers who went to see the original weren’t very excited to see the sequel because they figure it’s nothing really new; it’s a common problem with sequels,” averred one Teutonic exhib, who also noted “Incredibles” is hip with young adults, the target demo for “Ocean’s.”

The Disney/Pixar toon captured $26.7 million from 7,000 prints in 37 markets, propelling its cume to $189.5 million. Superhero pic had muscular bows in Mexico and South Korea, although slightly below “Finding Nemo” in both, and in Korea it trailed “Rikidozan,” saga of a Korean-Japanese wrestler.

“Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events” reigned in the U.K. (tracking ahead of “The Grinch Who Stole Christmas”) and in New Zealand. The Jim Carrey starrer started brightly in Australia, hyped by the presence of Oz teenager Emily Browning, although it was below the second weekend of “Ocean’s Twelve.”

Winding its travels, “The Terminal” had a stellar bow in Japan, well above that of Steven Spielberg’ s “Catch Me If You Can,” sending its cume to $104 million, eclipsing domestic’s $77 million. “Alien vs. Predator” also juiced Japan, its final destination, and the creature feature’s cume hit $77.5 million, closing in on domestic’s $79 million.

“The Polar Express” chugged along to about $66 million in 46 territories, and with Russia, Turkey and a few Asian markets on the horizon, could reach $100 million. The pricey pic was buoyed by the school vacations in its second chapter in the U.K. and in its third in France.

“National Treasure” was the victor in Taiwan, marking a personal best for topliner Nicolas Cage. Action-adventure was thumped by the competition in its second turn in Italy but held OK in its third in Spain; it’s uncovered $43 million in only 13 markets.

“Alexander” soldiered on to $28.7 million in 22 territories and, per international sales agent Intermedia, has bowed at No. 1 in all except Turkey and Israel. Oliver Stone’s epic captured a heroic $299,000 on 69 prints in South Africa, including sneaks, and retained the lead in its second campaign in Hungary and in its third in Greece.

Ed Meza in Berlin, Sheri Jennings in Rome, Norma Nebot in Madrid and Liza Klaussmann in Paris contributed to this report.

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