Cruise starrer opened No.1 in Oz, Brazil, France, others

It was Tom Cruise’s moment, as Warner’s “The Last Samurai” emphatically dethroned New Line’s “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” at the international box office.

“The Last Samurai,” directed by Ed Zwick, easily led last weekend with $40.6 million at 5,734 playdates in 31 territories. That overwhelmed the fifth frame of “The Return of the King” with $23.1 million at 8,104 sites in 54 territories. “King” had dominated the box office for its first three weeks, then narrowly won the fourth week over “Samurai,” which was in only 13 offshore markets at that point.

“Samurai” swept smartly to the top spot in its openings in Australia, Brazil, France, Greece, Mexico and South Africa while remaining No. 1 in its soph sesh in Germany, Holland, Italy and Spain. The epic also remained an impressive performer in Japan, where its seven-week cume hit $85.3 million, accounting for nearly half of the foreign total of $165.5 million as of Jan. 21.

“Samurai” gave Gallic biz a major bump: Overall biz jumped 16% as the Cruise starrer scored $5.7 million in its first eight days at 600 playdates amid exhib hopes for ongoing playability despite lukewarm notices from local crix.

In Germany, overall grosses declined 19%, but exhibs were enthusiastic about “Samurai” and saw its relatively small 23% decline in its second weekend as a portent of strong staying power. Cume after a dozen days hit $10.7 million.

“German viewers love Tom Cruise,” one Teuton exhib enthused. “He’s as big here as in the States. ‘The Last Samurai’ is a period film and, like a Western, it’s not for everyone. Yet it’s attracting a lot of male viewers who come for the action, as well as female viewers who come to see Tom Cruise.”

Spanish B.O. increased 5% as the soph frame of “Samurai” slid only 24% and its 12-day cume hit $11.3 million. “The surprising thing about ‘Samurai’ is that it bowed strongly on a large spread — 428 prints — and is still going great guns, despite the wide launch. It should continue strongly,” a Spanish booker said.

U.K. takings totaled $11.9 million as of Jan. 21, with Blighty bookers impressed by the mild 25% decline in “Samurai’s” soph sesh. One exhib noted “Vanilla Sky” declined 36% after its opening.

Thought Italian overall biz was off 15%, bookers were pleased by “Samurai” dipping a mere 15% and cited Cruise’s promo visit as key. But “Samurai” is certain to lose the Jan. 23-25 frame due to the Italo opening of “Return of the King” with about 1,000 playdates: Exhibs expect the trilogy’s finale to mirror other territories and have three or four strong weekends.

Italo exhibitors complimented clever marketing for “King,” such as stories on the customs of Hobbits. “This film is different than the other two because it is the conclusion,” one said. “It will definitely do as well as the first two, but I expect it to surpass them.”

As of Jan. 20, “Return of the King” had reached $502.3 million in foreign grosses, remaining 25% ahead of “Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers” at the same point.

It joined seven other pics in the half-billion-dollar club, including its two predecessors, the two “Harry Potter” films, “Independence Day,” “Jurassic Park” and the all-time leader, “Titanic.”

With “King” opening in Japan in mid-February, pic should easily pass the $583 million total for “Two Towers.”

BVI’s “Finding Nemo” also should enter the $500 million foreign circle shortly. As of Jan. 19, its offshore cume had totaled $497.9 million after a $7.5 million weekend; Japanese takings have gone past $90 million.

Foreign exhibs also noted the Jan. 27 announcement of Oscar nominations should spur biz for films that snag nods in major categories, likely to include “Return of the King,” “Samurai” and “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World,” which had cumed $86.7 million offshore as of Jan. 21. Noms should be particularly helpful for UIP’s arthouse stalwarts “Lost in Translation” and “21 Grams.”

In the U.K., “Lost in Translation” expanded from its opening 96 to 187 situations but lost little potency, taking in $4.25 million in only 10 days. Blighty exhibs attributed the standout success to the astute marketing campaign, which has sold what is essentially an arthouse pic as a comedy with wide appeal beyond its natural core aud.

In Germany, “Lost” lost only 1% in its second weekend. “It’s gotten great word of mouth,” a Teuton exhib enthused. “While average cinemagoers may not be all that aware of award nominations, it nevertheless helps the distributors getting the word out and boosts coverage, which translates to increased interest.”

“21 Grams” opened solidly in Italy with $1.2 million at 185 playdates. “Una bella sorpresa,” said one booker, adding Sean Penn’s perf had particularly impressed moviegoers. Cume has hit $5.4 million, mostly from nine weeks of Mexican biz.

Sony’s “Mona Lisa Smile” debuted decently in Spain with $1.94 million at 305, but exhibs had been hoping the Julia Robert vehicle could haul in better than 50% of the soph sesh of “Samurai.” “Sometimes the star system works; sometimes it doesn’t,” one booker noted.

UIP’s “Paycheck” opened with a lukewarm $1.67 million at 342 U.K. sites, with one exhib opining that prospects for the Ben Affleck sci-fier were “nothing to write home about.”

Warner’s “Something’s Gotta Give” has cumed a respectable $5.56 million in a dozen days in Oz and New Zealand; European launch is set for the first two February frames.

Archie Thomas in London, Ed Meza in Berlin, Sheri Jennings in Rome, Liza Klausmann in Paris and John Hopewell in Madrid contributed to this report.

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