Overseas markets take outsize bite

Studios are looking at Sony’s nearly $800 million in worldwide grosses for “Spider-Man 3″ as the first hopeful sign that their strategy of flooding the market with tentpoles will work.

If a glut of such megapics seems to defy logic, one need only look overseas to find out why studios are cranking them out. Some two-thirds of the grosses for “Spider-Man” come from foreign territories. The Hollywood majors’ overseas business could this year top $10 billion — a record that would represent a stunning 16% hike over last year and 27% ahead of 2005.

Sony’s rivals are smitten as well, reasoning that their own upcoming mega-budget vehicles can break out, too.

“The ‘Spider-Man’ grosses were bigger than expected, and they do give everyone a sense of optimism,” admits Universal Pictures Intl. topper David Kosse.

“I think it is exactly the start the industry needed for the summer, and with the formidable lineup of product coming up, it looks like a record year in the making,” notes Paramount Pictures Intl. prexy Andrew Cripps.

The pattern was already in place by the end of March as foreign grosses for the Big Six studios were up 19% to $2.1 billion, with Fox’s “Night at the Museum” and Warner’s “300″ leading the way.

“This summer is so strong that we’ll finish far ahead of last year,” notes David Kornblum, BVI veep of international sales and distribution. “We’ve come a long way from the doom and gloom days of 2005.”

Two years ago, box office receipts declined worldwide amid dire forecasts that the entire movie biz was in danger of obsolescence. For now, that talk has vanished with “Spider-Man 3″ about to become the 16th film to top half a billion dollars in foreign grosses.

And two more mega-tentpoles should take in even more — the Mouse House’s “Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End” and Warner’s “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.” The third “Pirates” movie enters the picture after its predecessor grossed $650 million overseas, while the fourth “Potter” installment topped $550 million internationally.

Distributors border on hyperbole in describing their enthusiasm.

“Those three films this summer — ‘Spider-Man,’ ‘Pirates’ and ‘Potter’ — are a trifecta for the ages,” Kornblum notes.

The summer is also going to see plenty of overseas pop from Paramount’s “Shrek the Third.” “Shrek 2″ took in nearly half a billion dollars overseas — more than double the total of the original “Shrek” — and the foreign market hasn’t seen a breakout toon title since last year’s “Ice Age: The Meltdown” took in $450 million overseas.

“Shrek the Third” already has shown some serious muscle in Russia, setting a record last weekend for best launch by a foreign film.

It’s a similar situation for a half a dozen other pics, too — titles that should be able to take advantage of the goodwill from their predecessors:

  • “Die Hard 4″ is the sequel to a film that was a stellar performer overseas a dozen years ago with $265 million.

  • “Ocean’s Thirteen” is looking like a good bet after its two predecessors combined for half a billion dollars internationally.

  • “Evan Almighty” is the sequel to a pic that took in a quarter billion dollars outside the U.S.

nThe second “Fantastic Four” pic should be able to leverage the surprisingly strong performance of the first movie and could take in $200 million.

  • “Rush Hour 3″ has the benefit of being set outside the U.S.

  • “The Bourne Ultimatum” is the third in a series that has outperformed expectations.

And hopes are high for three new properties that will launch in the summer — “Transformers,” “The Simpsons Movie” and “Ratatouille”; the latter brings the pedigree of Pixar.

That recognizability is crucial in foreign markets with customers whose loyalty to the multiplex isn’t nearly as high as in the U.S., where the average person goes to more than five movies a year. In many major markets like the U.K., Germany and Japan, that rate’s under three a year.

“This summer is really the test of tentpoles in international markets,” admits Jay Sands, senior VP of Sony Pictures Releasing Intl. “We’ve certainly done our part.”

Of course, getting to $10 billion for the entire year isn’t a certainty since it will still depend on some breakout performances at the end of the year.

Early favorites include Warner’s “I Am Legend,” Disney’s “National Treasure: Book of Secrets” and “Enchanted,” New Line’s “The Golden Compass,” U’s “American Gangster,” Par’s “Bee Movie” and “Beowulf” and Fox’s “Alien vs. Predator 2.”

Best bets: the “National Treasure” sequel, given that the original grossed $175 million outside the U.S., and “I Am Legend,” given the sterling performance of Will Smith films overseas.

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