Foreign auds see growing odds

Moviegoers give small territories big clout

When “Casino Royale” had a socko global day-and-date launch on Nov. 17, Russia and India were responsible for more than $8 million of the $43 million opening weekend gross overseas.

Those numbers are good. But they’re especially impressive considering that, as far as Hollywood is concerned, the two territories were B.O. nonentities five years ago.

Similarly, South Koreans in one decade have tripled their moviegoing, from an average of one film visit a year to nearly three.

After slumping in 2005, foreign moviegoing’s heading for a new record this year. The reasons vary from territory to territory, but film distributors around the world are keeping an eye on the growth. As Hollywood increasingly relies on the foreign market, studios are poring over the numbers for each country — and, just as crucially, the frequency of moviegoing in each area.

In terms of repeat filmgoing, Americans average five times a year. While that’s a huge drop from the 25 times per year that Yanks averaged in the 1940s, it still makes the U.S. the world leader in terms of per-capita moviegoing. Australia and European countries are runners-up to the U.S. (see chart).

And one of the studios’ key international goals is to raise the per-capita moviegoing in other countries.

What causes the growth?

South Korea stands as a role model for a developing moviegoing nation. There’s a surge in modern multiplex construction, an expanding middle class and a booming local production scene. Almost nonexistent a decade ago, the South Korean film industry has since expanded into global prominence thanks to hits such as 2004’s “Old Boy,” “April Snow,” “The Host” and “King and the Clown.”

Fortunately for Hollywood studios, the success of Korean films hasn’t prevented American films from scoring in that fast-expanding market. For example, Korean box office on “The Island” topped $22 million, the highest market outside the U.S.

“Just because Korean productions do well in Korea, that doesn’t preclude people from seeing U.S. films,” notes Jay Sands, VP at Sony Pictures Releasing Intl. “South Koreans really enjoy going to the movies. And because they’ve done a lot of building recently, the infrastructure is really up to date.”

Based on moviegoing frequency, South Korea is fast becoming one of the world’s best markets. Its citizens go to the movies nearly three times a year — twice as often as the Japanese and more than the British, Germans or Italians.

According to projections by Dodona Research, South Korea should continue to climb, heading past France and Spain to 3.5 by 2010.

Per capita does not necessarily correlate to top boxoffice. The folks in Singapore, for example, average an impressive four movie visits a year, but the population is not big enough to make that a major territory.

Still, a study of per capita attendance indicates long-term upside in markets such as Poland, Venezuela, Mexico, the United Arab Emirates, Malaysia, Taiwan and Turkey. These numbers also give studios hope in China, despite quotas and piracy.

Given the minuscule moviegoing numbers in those markets, expansion possibilities are tantalizing. For example, Dodona reports that Chinese moviegoing averages .06 visits per year; by 2010, projections say it will nearly double to .11. While that may not sound impressive, it adds up to serious grosses with 1.3 billion people.

In India, “Casino Royale” set a record for a non-Indian launch with $3.2 million, beating the mark set two years ago by “Spider-Man 2” by 87%. In the UAE, “Casino” posted the second-best opening of all time with $635,000.

As for Russia, “Casino Royale” opened with $5.1 million — the eighth-biggest launch of all time.

“A lot of people are getting into the moviegoing habit in Russia,” says Buena Vista Intl. VP David Kornblum. “With Russians getting wealthier, there’s an increase in leisure time that’s being spent on movies. And the theaters that are being built are as luxurious as any in the world.”

At .6 admissions per year, Russia’s per capita attendance still has room for improvement. However, execs see a huge upside as the Russians continue to upgrade their infrastructure, with total screens jumping almost 50% last year from 650 to 1,001 (although that doesn’t include older, government-owned theaters).

Brazil boasts similar stats. “There’s significant growth in Brazil, even though half of the population still can’t afford to go to the movies,” Kornblum says.

Successes in emerging markets are tempered by a relative lack of movement in established territories.

Germany will see an impressive gain of 14% this year, though most of it simply means a recovery back to 2004 levels following a precipitous 12% slide last year.

Hong Kong’s rebounded slightly this year, up 4% to 2.84 but still under the 2.87 rate in 2004. And Dodona predicts the Hong Kong moviegoing rate will start edging down next year, slipping to 2.80 by 2010.

And Japan — the No. 3 market after the U.S. and the U.K. — has remained the world’s most stable territory with per capita rates staying between 1.25 and 1.33 for the last six years. Dodona’s predicting gradual gains in Japanese moviegoing over the next four years to 1.40 in 2010.

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