Off-screen buzz gives 'War,' 'Smith' legs

NEW YORK — While “War of the Worlds” was the latest event pic to test overseas waters this past weekend, Fox’s “Mr. and Mrs. Smith” showed off some impressive international legs.

Tabloid reports haven’t been a problem for either: Off-screen buzz generated by Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes had pundits wondering whether “War of the Worlds” could face international backlash (it hasn’t), while rumors of a real-life romance between “Smith” stars Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie seem to have helped boost that pic, according to Fox brass, particularly in Latin America, Asia and Australia.

In its third frame in release in South Korea, for example, “Smith” saw its B.O. drop off just 25% last weekend, marking Fox’s biggest third weekend overseas of all time. Pic has cumed $15.5 million in South Korea so far and remained No. 1 at the box office there last weekend, even with the 25% dip and increased competish.

Pic has taken in north of $9 million in Mexico and about $13.4 million to date in Australia.

“A lot of (the film’s) success has to do with the high profile actors that are in it,” said Joe Ortiz, Fox’s exec director of international distribution. “People are wondering (about the stars’ personal lives), so they are curious to see them onscreen. We’re still kicking butt in a lot of places.”

“Smith” is performing for the studio despite the fact that Fox doesn’t own rights in France, Germany or Japan.

Spy pic’s worldwide take is $108 million, including the non-Fox territories. Pic could face competish this weekend, however, as “Fantastic Four” launches in its strongholds of Australia and Mexico and “War of the Worlds” opens in Korea.

“Worlds” of wonder

As for “Worlds,” when the British press waged a war of words — and squirting microphones — with Tom Cruise leading up to the pic’s international bow, its performance was cast into doubt there as foreign box office pundits wondered weather the increasingly mercurial star had wandered smack into worldwide backlash.

Pic prevailed in the U.K. by pulling in $15.7 million. Like “Smith,” which has made nearly $18.5 million in the U.K., “War” also jumped other possible hurdles in its way last weekend, including the Live 8 benefit concerts, which were anchored by a London megashow.

Some observers of the U.K. scene said Live 8, staged in part in Hyde Park and televised via the BBC, would put a dent in the box office. Though the London show drew 4.2 million television viewers during the day, and 7.8 million during evening hours, the event did not dampen ticket sales.

“People thought that Live 8 would impact box office performance and it didn’t,” said UIP prexy Andrew Cripps. “There were a couple hundred thousand people in Hyde Park, and TV coverage was (highly rated), but a lot of people must have also taped (Live 8).”

Though Live 8 didn’t stop the “War” assault, and some pooh-poohed the idea that such a spectacle could hurt a Spielberg-Cruise collaboration, execs were sensibly wary. Auds in key foreign territories are increasingly being drawn to other forms of entertainment, particularly sports, rather than the movies.

“War” goosed foreign box office coffers a bit but wasn’t enough to make exhibs party like it was 2004, when “Shrek 2″ opened in the U.K. with nearly $28.5 million.

Germany, which had shunned Warner Bros. “Batman Begins,” certainly warmed up some for “War” but nevertheless posted numbers below expectations at $7.4 million. Sunday’s French Grand Prix in the world of Formula One racing and Germany’s national obsession with driver Michael Schumacher may have cut into the film’s take.

“War” will next wage opening weekend campaigns in France, Belgium and Korea, territories where it seems assured success after its world domination last weekend. In Japan, however, “War” will now go up against the latest “Star Wars” pic, which bows there and may add a boost to the international scene.

But with aliens and superheroes running amok (“Batman Begins” just crossed the $100 million mark overseas), “Smith” seems sure to see another weekend in the sun.

Fox announced Tuesday its international cume for 2005 had hit the $1 billion mark on June 25 and cited “Smith,” “Kingdom of Heaven” ($144 million), Robots ($114 million) and “Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith” ($379.4 million) as the key contributors.

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