'Mamma,' 'Sex,' 'Panda' dazzle overseas

The international box office couldn’t quite match last summer’s heights, but it’s been a solid season nevertheless.

With disruption from two major sporting events (the Olympics and the Euro Cup) and fewer slam-dunk franchise pics, the overseas numbers weren’t expected to duplicate 2007’s stunning performance. But a variety of films that weren’t sure bets — notably “Mamma Mia!,” “Sex and the City,” “What Happens in Vegas” and “Kung Fu Panda” — managed to dazzle outside the U.S.

A few domestic misfires such as “Speed Racer” and “Meet Dave” also crashed overseas, but the studios mostly opted for tentpole fare during the summer and held back on the harder-to-sell raunchy comedies such as “Tropic Thunder” until later in the year.

Fox has calculated the 2008 international summer box office at $5.011 billion going into this weekend, which will probably see an additional $150 million. That would leave the summer 3.6% behind last summer’s $5.421 billion total for foreign markets.

“Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” was the one pic that everyone thought would succeed overseas, and it did exactly that as the top international summer grosser at $466 million.

Still, that would have been only the fifth highest last summer, after the third “Pirates of the Caribbean” pic, the fifth “Harry Potter” and the third editions in the “Spider-Man” and “Shrek” franchises.

After “Crystal Skull,” though, few of the properties carried a guarantee of blockbuster performance outside the U.S. That was clearly the case with “The Dark Knight,” which now looks likely to top the $400 million mark in international grosses today and should wind up the final summer weekend in the lead.

Crossing the $400 million milestone will place “The Dark Knight” in a club with only 29 other films. What’s equally impressive about the sixth Batpic is that it’s first in the series to generate a blockbuster number outside the U.S. “Batman Begins” generated the previous high number with a relatively modest $166 million.

The U.K. has led the way for “Dark Knight” with $86 million, followed by Australia with $40 million, Mexico with $25 million, Brazil with $19 million and South Korea with $18.6 million. With Germany in its second weekend and France in its third, and worldwide grosses going past $900 million this weekend, the Batpic may have enough firepower to become only the fourth film to hit $1 billion in combined foreign and domestic box office (after “Titanic,” the third “The Lord of the Rings” and the second “Pirates of Caribbean”).

For Paramount, the summer was particularly fruitful, with “Crystal Skull,” “Kung Fu Panda” and “Iron Man” propelling its combined May-August grosses to $1.13 billion and its year to date to $1.5 billion. “Panda” may hit $400 million and has benefited from Disney’s decision to hold off on “Wall-E” in many markets.

Thanks to Batman, Warner is in second with $1.45 billion year to date, including $700 million during the summer despite a fairly $45 million minimal contribution from “Speed Racer” — and hardly any of the $243 million from “Sex and the City,” which New Line financed by selling off foreign territories.

Universal also saw a golden summer overseas with $805 million thanks to a trio of offshore hits: “Mamma Mia!,” which shows no signs of slowing at the $250 million mark and more than a dozen territories still to open; “The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor,” with nearly $230 million and China yet to launch; and “Wanted,” which just went surpassed domestic with $134 million.

U topped its biggest-ever year on the foreign front earlier this week when its year to date eclipsed the 1999 total of $1.18 billion.

Disney’s summer totaled $489 million — most of that from “The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian,” which has grosses headed toward $280 million, double the domestic total. The Mouse House has held back about half the foreign markets for “Wall-E,” which has already hit $162 million.

Fox’s summer was fairly quiet, but it still managed to generate $395 million, led by “What Happens in Vegas” with $138 million, 72% above the domestic total. “Vegas” had enough cross-cultural appeal and star power with Cameron Diaz to defy conventional wisdom that adult-oriented comedies don’t work overseas.

Adult summer comedies such as “Pineapple Express” and “Step Brothers” won’t open in most foreign markets until the fall. Sony opted to wait on opening “You Don’t Mess With the Zohan” in key territories until just recently.

Sony’s major summer success came from “Hancock,” set to cross the $350 million mark this weekend with its Japanese launch as Will Smith underlined his status as the world’s most reliable star in foreign markets. With “I Am Legend,” his last two films have taken in nearly $700 million outside the U.S.

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