Tentpoles to likely have more staying power

What do you do with 12,000 extra screens outside the United States at the height of the holiday season?

International distributors are scrambling to adjust their holiday-season planning in the wake of Warner Bros.’ Aug. 14 surprise announcement that it is delaying the November release of “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince” for eight months.

There’s no question that the sixth Potter pic will be a monster overseas, where the five films have cumed nearly $3 billion including $645 million last year for “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.”

What goes into theaters now that Harry’s gone from his Nov. 21 day-and-date opening is a question being faced by operators of about a third of some 36,000 international screens. The answer is not yet clear but the emerging consensus among distribution execs is that the season’s tentpoles — Sony’s James Bond pic “Quantum of Solace,” Par’s “Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa,” Fox’s “The Day the Earth Stood Still” — will have significantly more staying power.

Even though Sony announced Aug. 21 that it was moving the U.S. release date for “Quantum of Solace” back a week to Nov. 14, it hasn’t yet budged any of the foreign dates — most of which are around Nov. 7.

Domestic release dates, too, continue to be reshuffled in the wake of the announcement.

American studios rely far more heavily on tentpoles outside the United States, where moviegoing rates are far lower and patrons respond more readily to known quanitities. “What you’ll see is that the big films won’t have to fight nearly as hard to keep screens throughout the season,” one exec notes.

Other beneficiaries from the Potter withdrawal may include Fox’s Baz Luhrmann epic “Australia”; Summit’s vampire romancer “Twilight”; Disney’s family entries “Bolt” and “High School Musical 3″; plus Warner Bros.’ Ridley Scott Mideast-set thriller “Body of Lies.”

The “Madagascar” sequel, due to open Nov. 6, appears to have scored the biggest benefit because it will be able to remain at more locations for a longer period. Additionally, its predecessor performed exceptionally outside the U.S. with $340 million in foreign cume.

“Internationally, I think this will be a great plus for ‘Madagascar 2,’” notes Par Intl. topper Andrew Cripps. “It makes us the standout family movie for year end in most international markets and will allow the film to play through the Christmas holidays with strength. We are looking at our dates at present and anticipate making a few adjustments to take advantage of the situation.”

“Solace,” which begins its foreign launches Oct. 31 in France, Sweden and the U.K., may not see quite as big an impact since its core audience doesn’t quite match that of the Potter franchise. Still, the 22nd Bond movie has assumed the title as the season’s top prospect — particularly since the previous Bond pic, “Casino Royale,” was a massive overseas hit with $425 million.

“We’re clearly the big guy now, the 600-pound gorilla,” notes Sony’s international topper Mark Zucker. “It’s a great spot to be in.”

Princes William and Harry are expected to attend the Oct. 29 world preem in London.

“The Day the Earth Stood Still” also stands to benefit somewhat since its day-and-date Dec. 10 launch comes on what would have been the fourth weekend of “The Half-Blood Prince.” The sci-fier is aiming to wind up in the same territory as “War of the Worlds” and “Day After Tomorrow,” both of which showed impressive overseas traction with grosses topping $350 million.

And without Harry Potter, Disney’s “High School Musical 3″ may linger longer. The Mouse House is giving the pic a major push outside the U.S. with day and date launches in many key markets in late October.

Disney’s animated magical dog tale “Bolt,” which moved five days forward into the Nov. 21 slot domestically, has a staggered international release pattern going all the way into February with many key markets launching around Christmas. It may decide to move up some dates to provide an alternative to patrons who would’ve seen “Madagascar 2.”

“Australia,” which looks to be an awards season play for Fox, may be able to be released more aggressively during the late holiday season when it’s currently set to open. “Body of Lies” has been set for an October release in most territories, but Warner began moving the thriller back in German-speaking markets into November.

And “Twilight” is a bit of wild card internationally since local distributors will decide release dates, though Summit still works with the distribs.

“It’s great for us,” declares Summit co-topper Patrick Wachsberger. “The move positions ‘Twilight’ as a franchise movie and it’s brought a lot of attention from exhibitors and fans.”

Most of the key foreign releases are set for around Christmas or early next year. In the U.K., for example, pic will likely have a modest release Jan. 9 through indie Contender – though that could change.

Summit’s already moved aggressively on the domestic front in the wake of the “Half-Blood Prince” vacancy by moving its potential sleeper hit forward three weeks to Nov. 21. According to Wachsberger, the domestic date switch makes it far easier to use the cast to promote the pic in foreign markets.

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