Latest prequel unlikely to overtake 'Menace'

The Star Wars phenom continues, particularly overseas, but at a considerable price to the rest of the business.

“Star Wars: Episode III –Revenge of the Sith” had dominated offshore moviegoing for the past three weeks, hitting $317 million in foreign grosses as of June 7.

The final “Star Wars” saga has seen its foreign take eclipse the domestic by nearly $5 million. Combined worldwide gross of $630 million, advancing at a rate of about $7 million daily on weekdays, has gone past “The Incredibles” for the 24th highest spot and will blow past “Star Wars: Episode II –Attack of the Clones” at $648 million during the June 10-12 period.

“Sith” had already overtaken “Return of the Jedi” and “The Empire Strikes Back” and may have enough gas in the tank to reach the original “Star Wars” at $798 million, currently at the No. 13 spot on the worldwide grosses list. But with weekend-to-weekend declines of more than 40% in many territories and “Batman Begins” expected to perform impressively with massive day-and-date openings June 16 and 17, it’s improbable that “Sith” will match the $922 million worldwide for “The Phantom Menace” by the end of its run.

Overall business stayed unimpressive compared with the same period in 2004, when “Harry Potter and Prisoner of Azkaban” opened with $113.5 million and the soph sesh of “The Day After Tomorrow” grossed $54.1 million.

Key markets presented a mixed picture with business in Spain sliding 23% while Italy was off 8%. The U.K. inched up 2% and France posted a 3% gain while Germany benefited from rainy weather and shot up 21.5%.

Exhibitors offered nothing but praise for “Sith.” In Germany, for example, “Sith” hogged the lion’s share of admissions, outgrossing the combined totals of the next five entries — “Sahara,” “House of Wax,” “Monster-in-Law,” “Kung Fu Hustle” and “Kingdom of Heaven.”

“It’s definitely the best one of the last three,” one Teuton booker observes. “Sith” had topped $35 million in German grosses as of June 5 — $6 million ahead of “Phantom Menace” and $7 million ahead of “Attack of the Clones” at the same point of their runs.

Another German booker notes that “Sahara” faced tough going by competing for the same core crowd of action-adventure fans supporting “Sith.” And he notes that “House of Wax” has evoked little interest among horror aficionados. “It makes more sense to rent these kinds of films at the video store,” he adds.

In the U.K., the launch of “Sin City” mounted decent competish for “Sith,” which should top $70 million shortly. Despite what exhibs called a “faultless” campaign by Fox to keep interest up in “Sith” after three weeks, “Sin City” managed to take in about 75% as bookers credited BVI for a solid marketing job in selling “Sin” as a Quentin Tarantino-type project.

“In Mickey Rourke it has the signature reborn star audiences equate with Tarantino films, and it helped that he came to London,” one booker notes.

In France, the opening of “Sin City” took in about 40% of “Sith.” Exhibs had hoped for a bit more due to heavy promotion of the film since the debut of the Cannes Film Festival in May but recognized that they faced a tough situation in the face of the final “Star Wars” film.

“Smaller-budget auteur films have a chance of catching the audiences who are not interested in ‘Star Wars,’ but a film like ‘Sin City’ has a harder time competing,” one Gallic booker notes. “Still, the opening was nowhere near disappointing.”

“Sith” had 5.67 million French admissions as of June 5, nearly matching the admissions for “Attack of the Clones” but still well short of the 7.15 million tickets for “Phantom Menace.”

In Spain, the “Sith” outlook had clouded with a 49% drop in the third frame with one booker saying, “We didn’t expect people to abandon the movie so soon.”

“Sith” is likely to overhaul “Attack of the Clones” at $20.6 million but may not match “Phantom Menace” at $28.2 million. Spanish exhibs believe piracy may be hurting “Sith.”

“Pirate DVDs are taking people away from cinemas in general, and especially are discouraging people from watching the movie in the cinema twice,” one notes.

Spanish exhibitors remain perturbed there haven’t been any big films in the past six weeks other than “The Interpreter,” “XXX: State of the Union” and “Kingdom of Heaven.” Bookers are also carping about “Madagascar” not getting released in Spain until June 17 even though pirate copies with Spanish dubbing are already available.

“Madagascar” performed well in Russia, Turkey, Singapore and Malaysia as UIP opted for a gradual rollout strategy.

In Italy, “Sin City” actually beat “Sith” handily but the overall outlook was somewhat grim, given that business was down 67% compared with the same weekend last year. “Sith” saw a 50% drop; it hadn’t even matched the five-week cume for “Kingdom of Heaven.”

Italo biz has been so downbeat that exhibs have lowered expectations for “Batman Begins” but remain hopeful that “War of the Worlds,” opening June 29, will be a blockbuster. “Steven Spielberg and Tom Cruise are considered a guarantee,” one booker says.

“Batman Begins” will see premieres in London, Berlin and Paris along with Rome. The Italian preem is June 16, with cast expected to be present.

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

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