'Compass,' 'Vegas' among rebounders overseas

When it comes to Hollywood’s films, foreign moviegoers are continuing to confound expectations.

Once an afterthought, foreign grosses hit $17.1 billion last year, compared with $9.6 billion domestically, according to the MPAA.

English-speaking markets usually see similar performances to the U.S., with Australia usually closest to the domestic number by a ratio of 1-to-10. But most international audiences aren’t necessarily in sync with their Stateside counterparts — as evidenced by these recent developments:

n Bad reviews really don’t matter overseas, but action and international stars and setting are always selling points. “The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor” has already grossed $230 million overseas without even opening in China; in the United States, the third “Mummy” still hasn’t topped $100 million.

n Fantasy rules overseas. “The Golden Compass” underperformed domestically ($70 million) but was a big hit ($296 million) overseas, mirroring the performances of “Eragon,” “Bridge to Terabithia,” and “Stardust.” “The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian” didn’t amaze domestically with $140 million but will double that number outside the U.S.

n Raunchy comedies don’t usually connect overseas. “Knocked Up” and “Superbad” didn’t even get half their domestic grosses overseas; “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” has totaled $39 million outside the U.S.; distribs are waiting until the fall in most markets for “Tropic Thunder” and “Pineapple Express.”

  • But raunchy comedies can connect overseas if they have enough romance and recognizability. Case in point — “What Happens in Vegas” has been the second-biggest comedy this year outside the United States (after “Sex and the City”) with nearly $140 million. Ben Stiller’s “The Heartbreak Kid” was a big disappointment domestically but salvaged itself with a respectable run overseas, where it took in over 70% of its $128 million worldwide gross.

n An oddball musical that’s a hit domestically can become an even bigger hit overseas. That would be “Mamma Mia!” with $125 million domestically and nearly double that number outside the United States with half a dozen major markets still to open.

n South Korea and Russia are heating up. South Korea was the second-highest foreign market for “Kung Fu Panda” and the best market for “The Island” with $22 million; Russia was the third-highest market for “Hancock” after the U.K. and Germany and the top market for “Wanted,” being directed by Russian Timur Bekmambetov.

The past several years have seen several overseas over-performers: In 2006, the year’s second-, third- and fourth-biggest films — “The Da Vinci Code,” “Ice Age: The Meltdown” and “Casino Royale” — took in more than 70% of their worldwide grosses outside the United States.

Most tentpoles tend to take in about 50% to 65% of their worldwide grosses overseas, but that percentage is likely to grow in coming years. The best upcoming candidate is probably “Quantum of Solace,” which is probably the biggest single beneficiary of Warner Bros.’ decision to move the sixth Harry Potter pic to next summer.

“Casino Royale” was a massive hit outside the U.S. with $425 million. With the Bondpic no longer having to wrestle for screens after its initial release, it may wind up topping “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” — now at $465 million — as the year’s top overseas film.

Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more