'Casino' wins third straight weekend at foreign box office

In addition to his cinematic heroics, James Bond has saved the 2006 international box office in the final few weeks of the year.

With most rivals opting for limited releases in recent weeks, Sony’s “Casino Royale” has dominated foreign moviegoing by easily winning three straight weekends. During the Dec. 1-3 frame, “Casino” grossed $44.7 million at 6,713 playdates, managing to outgross the combined takings of the next four pics — “Flushed Away,” “Borat,” “The Departed” and “Happy Feet.”

And on Dec. 4, the 21st Bond pic joined the elite club of slightly more than 100 films that have topped $200 million in foreign grosses. Six other 2006 pics have achieved that milestone — BVI’s “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest” at $637 million, Sony’s “The Da Vinci Code” at $532 million, Fox’s “Ice Age: The Meltdown” at $428 million, UIP’s “Mission: Impossible 3″ at $262 million, Fox’s “X-Men: The Last Stand” at $220 million and BVI’s “Cars” at $210 million.

With weekday grosses of about $5 million and openings this weekend in Australia and Mexico, “Casino Royale” will soon pass “Die Another Day” as the top foreign grosser among Bond pics at $271 million. Combined worldwide grosses for “Casino” as of Dec. 6 hit $331 million, $100 million short of “Die Another Day.”

The solid performance by “Casino” has ensured the final quarter stays relatively robust with the foreign box office for the five Hollywood distribs (BVI, Fox, Sony, UIP, Warner Bros.) on track to top 2004′s record of $8.5 billion and finish far above last year’s $7.9 billion.

Despite pre-release worries over whether Daniel Craig would be up to the task of portraying 007, Brit audiences have embraced “Casino” to an impressive degree. As of Dec. 3, it had pulled in $73.4 million — $17 million more than “Die Another Day,” the previous best Bond performer.

It was more of the same in Germany, where the soph sesh of “Casino” demolished the launch of three-time domestic champ “Happy Feet” by a 5-to-1 margin.

“It’s getting great word of mouth, and it’s appealing to a much broader base than previous Bond films,” noted one Teuton exhibitor of “Casino Royale.”

With a two-week German cume of $24.5 million, “Casino” was tracking far ahead of “Die Another Day” with $19 million at the same juncture. “Die” went on to gross $43.5 million in Germany.

“Casino” also continued to generate heat in France, where its second frame easily beat the launches of “The Departed” and “Flushed Away.”

Bond also remained a solid holdover performer in Scandinavia and Benelux but wasn’t as dominant outside northern Europe. In Spain, for example, the soph sesh of “Casino” dropped 49% to lose out to BVI’s launch of “Deja Vu” along with the opening of “Flushed Away.”

Spanish exhibs expressed happiness over the “Deja Vu” launch but predicted the pic will drop quickly due to relatively mild word of mouth. They also noted that “Flushed Away” benefited from a large promotional push before “Happy Feet” launched on Dec. 6, a national holiday.

Despite its robust domestic success, “Happy Feet” has only moderate footing in its first foreign forays. It finished second in its Italian launch with $1.77 million at 484, trailing the second frame of home-grown comedy “Anplagghed at the Cinema.”

“Anplagghed,” written by the comic troupe Aldo, Giacomo and Giovanni, has won back-to-back weekends with $5.7 million in its first 10 days. The title represents a phonetic spelling of “Unplugged” for Italians.

By contrast, Italians showed little interest in “The Nativity Story,” which launched in fourth with a quiet $727,072 at 437 for a meek $1,664 per-screen average.

The launch of “Nativity” had invited comparisons with “The Passion of the Christ,” which generated $24 million in Italy — the best of any foreign territory. And “Nativity” had generated a burst of buzz after it world preemed in the Vatican on Nov. 26 before 7,000 high-ranking church and government officials, along with being the latest in a long line of period pieces shot in the southern Italian city of Matera.

But the Bible pic failed to appeal to young moviegoers in a market that’s already saturated with religious-themed programs on TV. “Nativity” also showed little traction in Spain, finishing 13th with $255,035 at 213 and in Mexico in 14th with $136,154 at 220.

Still, distribs and exhibs expect to see solid foreign grosses in coming weeks from other family pics, particularly from “Happy Feet” and “Flushed Away.” The latter opened impressively in the U.K. with $6.15 million at 468 for a respectable $13,142 per screen.

The German launch of Fox’s “Little Miss Sunshine,” which enjoyed rave reviews in that market, opened respectably at No. 6 with $408,409 from 104 locations.

But in Spain, Antonio Banderas’ “Summer Rain” ranked seventh on a moderate bow with $747,672 from 289 prints. Fox’s coming-of-age story, set in the south of Spain in the 1970s, received a major promo push from Fox and Banderas, but reviews were mixed. Bookers think “Rain” may not have long legs since it’s not getting impressive word of mouth.

Ed Meza in Germany, Bernhard Warner in Italy and Esther De Prado in Spain contributed to this report.

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