Pic already has higher foreign cume than 'Jedi'

Twenty-eight years after George Lucas stunned the world with “Star Wars,” the Force retains a powerful hold on moviegoers worldwide.

“Star Wars: Episode III –Revenge of the Sith” showed plenty of potency in its first week with foreign grosses hitting $171 million as of May 24 in 105 nations at 10,510 playdates — about $11 million behind the domestic gross.

Fox launched “Sith” in Belgium, France and French-speaking Switzerland on May 18, moved into 45 more territories on May 19 and added the remaining markets the next day. Its $145.5 million opening weekend obliterated the $129 million launch of 2003′s “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King”; it then grossed $13 million more on May 23 and $12 million on May 24 .

The foreign performance has already given “Sith” a higher offshore cume than 1983′s “Return of the Jedi,” which totaled $166 million internationally. It was on track to pass the $248 million offshore total for “The Empire Strikes Back” by the end of May, followed by the original “Star Wars” at $314 million, 2002′s “Attack of the Clones” at $339 million and 1999′s “The Phantom Menace” at $493 million — currently 11th highest in international cume.

As of May 24, the U.K. led foreign takes with $32.4 million, followed by France with $25.9 million, Germany with $21.6 million, Oz with $12.1 million, Spain with $10.8 million, Mexico with $7.2 million and Russia with $5.3 million.

“Sith” provided a welcome surge to what had been a laggardly spring internationally with only Fox’s “Kingdom of Heaven” generating any significant business. “Kingdom” launched well in Japan — where “Sith” won’t open until July 9 — to lead that market; as of May 24, offshore grosses for “Kingdom” had totaled $135 million, well over triple the disappointing $42 million domestic gross.

Other distribs have largely shied away from the final “Star Wars” film but that’s had little impact on overall box office. For the weekend, grosses jumped 216% in the U.K., 160% in France, 113% in Germany and 55% in Spain.

“It was a galactic opening,” one German booker says of “Sith.” “This is what we have been waiting for. You can’t beat ‘Star Wars’ — it’s attracting a cross-generational audience that has crowded theaters across the country. There are fathers who grew up on the originals taking their kids who grew up on the new trilogy.”

The four-day German opening of “Sith” easily surpassed that of last year’s biggest hit, local sci-fi comedy “Spaceship Surprise,” and nearly matched the five-day launch for “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King.”

In Blighty, exhibs say the opening exceeded sky-high expectations and point to Lucas’ promise of a darker movie, pic being the last in the saga and more favorable reviews than “Attack of the Clones” received. And weekday “Sith” biz was encouraging with almost $3 million May 23, the Monday, significantly up from the $2.1 million posted on the same day by “Clones,” prompting bookers to predict that the territory’s final cume should come in around $70 million.

“Sith” took the No. 3 spot on the list of best all-time opening weeks in Gaul, behind “Asterix and Obelix: Mission Cleopatra” and “Taxi 2″ and second all-time best first-day haul, behind “Taxi 2.”

Opening day frenzy in Paris featured fans dressed as their favorite characters wandering the Champs Elysees. Some fans waited up to 15 hours to get into the first showing at the Grand Rex in Paris with Yodas and Darth Vaders engaged in lightsaber fights to pass the time while waiting in line.

In Spain, one booker asserted that “Sith” saw an all-time record number of costumed moviegoers — even more than the first nights of “The Lord of the Rings” movies. Madrid’s Kinepolis, Spain’s biggest hardtop, says it pre-sold 50% of “Sith” tix during the first four days and simulscreened the saga on seven screens with a total capacity for 4,000 people.

“Sith” also generated buzz for opening at 123 digital cinema sites. In Spanish daily El Pais, film director Alex de la Iglesia made a public appeal for spectators to see the film in Theater 25 of the Kinepolis, writing, “God, what perfection, what beauty, what madness.”

Italy was the one market where grosses were disappointing for “Sith,” with bookers noting expectations had been for an opening in the $6 million range. Instead, it was only the fifth-best May release, far behind record holder “The Matrix Reloaded.”

Italian exhibs note “Sith” had received massive promo and blamed the results on a combo of sunny climate and economic recession.

“Monster-in-Law” managed to show some power in the U.K. against “Sith” with the Jane Fonda/Jennifer Lopez chick flick dipping only 15% in its soph showing. One booker called it “brilliant counter-programming” by distrib Entertainment, saying word of mouth is far better than the reviews.

With the “Star Wars” frenzy abating in coming weeks, rivals will begin ramping up for such day-and-date tentpoles as “Batman Begins” on June 17 and “War of the Worlds” on June 29.

BVI’s also looking to continue expanding a pair of comedies in coming weeks — Vin Diesel’s “The Pacifier,” which hit $57.4 million on May 24, and “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” which has cumed $25.7 million from five markets.

(Archie Thomas in London, Ed Meza in Berlin, Liza Klaussmann in Paris, Esther de Prado in Madrid and Sheri Jennings in Rome contributed to this report.)

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