'Ice Age,' 'Narnia' trump conventional B.O. wisdom and join $100 mil club

It’s an 18-title list led by a teenage wizard, followed by an investigator into religious myths. And the holder of the most spots on it won’t exist in its current form after this year.

The list consists of the films that have managed to gross more than $100 million internationally since the last Cinema Expo. The films will receive Intl. Gold Reel Awards from Nielsen EDI at Cinema Expo this year.

The top performer isn’t a surprise, given its pedigree. Warner’s “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire” is the fifth-highest foreign grosser ever, joining four other films among those that have topped $600 million — “Titanic” with $1.2 billion; “The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King” at $752 million; “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” with $651 million; and “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets” at $604 million.

“Goblet of Fire” managed to outgross the third “Potter” pic, “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban,” which grossed $540 million overseas and is the ninth-largest overseas grosser.

Sony’s “The Da Vinci Code” turned out to be review-proof as it set records for the biggest opening weekend with $154.7 million and followed that with $91 million in its second weekend. Given Tom Hanks star power and the novel’s bestselling status throughout the world, anything less than $300 million would have seemed a disappointment.

The year’s major surprises came from an oddball pair of films that cleared $400 million in overseas markets — “The Chronicles of Narnia” and “Ice Age: The Meltdown.” “Narnia” confounded expectations as it consistently topped “King Kong” in late 2005 and early 2006 despite being initially far less well known in the markets.

BVI president Mark Zoradi says the foreign success for “Narnia” stemmed from more than a year of consistent campaigning with a particular focus on getting the core audience of adolescents to read the C.S. Lewis fantasy series. “We started with no recognition in many markets,” he says.

As for “Ice Age 2,” as it’s known in many markets, the sequel took advantage of several factors — plenty of leftover good will from the 2002 original, a canny teaser/trailer campaign that focused on Scrat trying to keep a nut for himself; and a dearth of strong competition for the family audience during the spring.

“We really had no weak markets for ‘Ice Age’ this time,” says Fox Intl. VP of sales and strategy Craig Dehmel.

In what turned out to be something of a swan song before its breakup, UIP managed to top the $300 million mark with a pair of action pics — “War of the Worlds” and “King Kong” — along with a goofy CGI toon, “Madagascar.” “War” benefited from the undeniable power of Tom Cruise and Steven Spielberg while “Madagascar” managed to take advantage of a market in which it was the only CGI toon for most of the summer.

As for “King Kong,” expectations were enormous even though audiences’ familiarity with the story turned out to be something of a double-edged sword, and it had to play directly against “Narnia” and “Goblet of Fire.” Even with those distractions, “Kong” still managed to crack the top 40 all-time list.

“We really tried to take advantage of the universal appeal of ‘King Kong,’ and it really worked across the board, except in Japan,” says David Kosse, Universal’s president of international marketing and distribution. “We really did have worldwide awareness, which made it obvious for us to go day-and-date.”

Two other pics cracked the quarter-billion-dollar mark — Fox’s “Mr. & Mrs. Smith,” showing the worldwide appeal of stars Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, and Warner’s “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” which benefited from strong word of mouth in many foreign markets.

“We were able to position ‘Charlie’ as a very unique movie and then take advantage of the buzz once people saw it,” says Sue Kroll, Warner Bros.’ international prexy of marketing. “Its feel of being kooky and weird really wound up working in its favor. I never saw any kind of reaction like that Johnny Depp got in London.”

The distrib also took pains to stagger the international release in order to coincide with holidays in specific markets. Veronika Kwan-Rubinek, Warner’s international president of distribution, says a full 40% of foreign biz took place in the fall.

Another major surprise also came in the family market with BVI’s “Chicken Little” turning in big grosses overseas during the late fall and winter.

“We managed to really catch a chord with children and I think our dancing chicken video was a key factor,” Zoradi says. “It caught on in the same way that the Scrat teaser did for ‘Ice Age’ a little later.”

Zoradi was also particularly pleased with “Flightplan” landing solidly in foreign markets, a performance stemming from a variety of factors — highlighting the key story angle of a mother seeking a lost child; German director Robert Schwentke giving the pic an international feel; and Jodie Foster’s star power.

“Jodie is absolutely the consummate professional at going out and promoting her films,” Zoradi says. “That was huge for us.”

Perhaps the least likely inclusion on the list is “Memoirs of a Geisha,” which managed to nearly double its moderate domestic gross of $57 million in overseas markets. Spyglass, which handled the foreign side, picked a wide array of individual distribs.

“This was a picture that required special handling, so we went with the best in each market,” says Spyglass partner Gary Barber.

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