Hollywood bullish on box office

With a bevy of boffo titles and no World Cup to gum up the works, film execs are hoping this summer’s international B.O. could hit a record high.

But if that happens, it won’t necessarily be an easy victory. Because of the summer glut, there will be a fight for good screens and the split of UIP means there will be more companies fighting for eyeballs.

More than ever before, studios will go day-and-date with domestic releases, aiming to make each film into a worldwide event and get the maximum money early. Such moves can be risky, since day-and-date precludes any significant changes to marketing campaigns after the opening.

But for the right pics, there could be a bonanza by getting key territories in the mix. For example, Japan, usually months behind on getting top U.S. releases, is expected to see day-and-date releases of such juggernauts as “Spider-Man 3,” “Pirates of the Caribbean 3″ and the fifth “Harry Potter” installment.

And Italy is getting day-and-dates, a big change for a market that tends to release pics well after they’ve already hit other Western Euro markets. The country’s moviegoers generally decamp to the beach for the entire season, but local exhibs — demoralized as the rest of the world rakes in big money from summer hits — are planning to change things.

A dozen megabudget tentpoles are opening between the first weekend in May and early August.

Warner Bros. has decided on summer dates for “Ocean’s Thirteen” and “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix,” though those pics’ predecessors generally bowed in the winter. Veronika Kwan-Rubinek, Warner’s international prexy of distribution, notes “Potter’s” international clout dictated going day-and-date on the second weekend of July.

“The opening date is not an obvious choice on the domestic side, but it really does put our best foot forward internationally,” she says. “With ‘Harry Potter,’ we’re going day and date everywhere except in the Middle East and a few minor markets, because most are going to be in holidays at that point, so this date really maximizes our opportunity.”

With so many tentpoles, the battle for screens will be intense.

“We’ll have between 6,000 and 7,000 on ‘Ocean’s’ and over 10,000 on ‘Harry’ but that’s going to be a challenge because there are so many incredible films coming,” Kwan-Rubinek admits.

The Warner biggies are just the tip of the iceberg in terms of recognizable titles. And that’s a key factor internationally.

“You have to rely on creating franchises and memorable characters that really have a mainstream appeal,” says Anthony Marcoly, BVI’s president for sales and distribution. “Since foreign audiences don’t go to the movies as often as U.S. audiences do, having tentpoles is that much more important for international business.”

Studio execs don’t seem worried that there will be so many options for filmgoers this summer.

“This is going to be the biggest summer ever,” declares Paul Hanneman, co-president of Fox Intl. “Usually, you see the biggest films are split between the summer and the holidays, but this year, they’re in the summer. I can’t imagine that theaters won’t be full.”

Some of the reasons for optimism:

“Pirates of the Caribbean:

At World’s End”: The second “Pirates” ended on a cliffhanger and grossed nearly $640 million overseas — a number topped only by “Titanic,” the final “Lord of the Rings” and the first “Harry Potter.” The DVD then sold more than 30 million copies.

Marcoly says, “The second ‘Pirates’ is really our best marketing tool. It’s turned out to be the franchise of all franchises.”

“Spider-Man 3″: (the first two pics earned $830 million overseas). “We’ll scoop up as much as we can in the first three weeks,” says Mark Zucker, prez of Sony Pictures Releasing Intl. “We’ll have that period really clear.” (In the U.S., the pic will get competition from the May 18 bow of “Shrek the Third,” but Paramount is waiting until summer for the toon’s bow in most markets.)

“Shrek the Third”: the first tentpole for the newly minted Paramount Pictures Intl. has worldwide deals with McDonald’s, Kellogg’s and many other promotional partners.

“Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix”: Downside is that the franchise’s lowest performer overseas (“Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban”) opened in the summer. Upside: it still grossed $540 million internationally. Tickets are already on sale in Japan, and the seventh “Harry Potter” book will hit stores on July 21.

“The Simpsons Movie”: British exhibitors suggest a huge worldwide gross isn’t out of the question, pointing to its appeal among all quadrants. The key for Fox will be to hammer home the notion that it’s a much different experience than the TV show, says Fox Intl. co-prez Tomas Jageus.

Other contenders with international appeal include “Ocean’s Thirteen”; “The Bourne Ultimatum,” for which UPI plans to tour Matt Damon around the globe; and “Live Free or Die Hard.” The Bruce Willis pic is the first “Die Hard” in a dozen years, but Hanneman believes that makes it fresher than other sequels. Also, “Evan Almighty,” “Transformers” and “Ratatouille” will have appeal for the potentially massive family market.

The summer will be the first for Par and U’s newly minted foreign distribution arms, set up with the aim of maximizing offshore box office. The existence of two separate operations, instead of a partnership, is sure to intensify the ferocity of the summer competition, since both ops will be more focused, more efficient and, in total, more heavily staffed to squeeze the maximum result out of their movies.

Paramount Pictures Intl. topper Andrew Cripps insists his company is well prepared: “While it has been a busy time, we are now well established as PPI and able to focus entirely on the films we are marketing and distributing.”

U and Par still will be releasing pics for each other in many major territories, where they have yet to set up their own direct operations.

“We aren’t opening any territories except Australia this year,” says UPI topper David Kosse. “And if there was ever a man to accomplish the task of setting up a new operation and launching tentpoles, it is Mike Baard, who runs our new operation.”

For decades, studios have focused on domestic summer B.O., while overseas has been sleepy, due to theaters without air-conditioning and audiences’ decided preference for the outdoors. But last summer was a reminder that things are changing. Two summer releases — “The Da Vinci Code” and “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest” — accounted for 14% of the entire year’s $8.6 billion. (“Da Vinci” ended up making $758 million worldwide, with 71% of that outside the United States.)

And while summer is the focus, the studios are already gearing up for a big holiday season that features “National Treasure 2,” “I Am Legend,” “The Golden Compass,” “The Bee Movie,” “Lions for Lambs,” “American Gangster” and “Enchanted.”

Ian Mohr in New York, Mark Schilling in Tokyo, Nick Vivarelli in Rome and Adam Dawtrey and Archie Thomas in London contributed to this report.

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