'Wars' still wages B.O. battle

NEW YORK — Although “Star Wars: Episode III — Revenge of the Sith” looks unlikely to become the highest-grossing “Star Wars” film overseas, as some predicted it would, pic’s perf still holds up in a summer when studio tentpoles keep falling down.

Just three pics, apart from “Sith,” have topped the $200 million mark this year, as opposed to seven by this time in 2004.

But even with foreigners holding tightly to their wallets in what were once thought of as reliable territories (Germany, the U.K.), “Sith” handily outpaced its predecessor, “Attack of the Clones,” even before opening in its final territory, Japan, last weekend.

“Sith” now sits 17th on the all-time worldwide list, with $782 million, with more than half its take coming from foreign coffers.

How has it made the grade while others have failed?

Reflecting a shift in the foreign markets, and a boon for Fox, pic has been able to pump coin in markets that weren’t in the picture when “Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace” stormed theaters in the summer of 1999.

Russia repped just $2.2 million of the massive $493.2 million foreign take for “Phantom,” for example, whereas the burgeoning market has so far contributed $9.37 million to “Sith” despite piracy.

China has also been a winner, although a more modest one.

“It’s the big territories that will make the big difference for this film,” said Fox exec director of international distribution Joe Ortiz. “There are also those territories that were not that significant when ‘Phantom Menace’ opened.”

At ‘War’

The only thing standing in “Sith’s” way in Japan is “War of the Worlds,” which gobbled up $5.2 million in its second frame there and dropped off just 37%. “Sith,” however, took in $17 million, including previews, and marked the third highest opening ever there.

Japan is key: It contributed a whopping $109.9 million to the “Phantom” worldwide gross. In fact, Fox wanted to book “Sith” earlier there but couldn’t get the screens it needed.

“In Japan, we’ve got a long way to go,” said Fox’s Ortiz. “Key markets will make it tough to reach (the ‘Phantom’ cume). But we’ve got a long way to go, and it’s going to be close.”

One territory lagging behind for “Sith” has been the U.K., which has so far pumped about $10 million less into the franchise this time around than the $81.9 million it produced for “Phantom” back in 1999.

Germany is down about $8 million for “Sith.”

After numbers came out last week suggesting that the U.K. market was down compared to last year, the trend is cause for concern in the marketplace overall.

“The U.K. is joining the rank of lower cinema attendance, as is Germany, and the real reason, however, is yet to be determined,” said one veteran looking at the overall foreign snapshot. There is “the economy, the weather, not enough new creative films being made and perhaps day-and-date releases not being as effective marketingwise. (Cinemagoers) outside of France, which is most passionate about films, are regarding moviegoing as one entertainment (option), and not the main one.”

Along those lines, France played a big role in “Sith’s” emergence in a down year, contributing $51.8 million so far to the pic and actually bettering the “Phantom” perf there of $43 million for its entire run.

Of course, a big part of the pic’s appeal — besides reviews that it plays better than “Clones” — is that it’s the final chapter in the whole storied series.

Ortiz said that foreign auds have responded to “Sith” because “word of mouth has been better, and also that (the film is) maybe a little darker than the last ones.”

“Maybe they could live without seeing episode II,” he said, then mentioning the unthinkable: that there are potential auds out there who have never seen a single “Star Wars” movie.

Such cave dwellers have been helping “Sith” in a challenging space this summer session.

“Some people feel they didn’t want to be left out of this last one,” said Ortiz. “(This film) has been taken a little more seriously.”

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