Fantasy movies a hit overseas

'Compass' is latest family-friendly pic to thrive

Hollywood knows there’s no such thing as a sure thing in the international marketplace, but it’s found a consistent sweet spot outside the United States: fantasy-adventure films aimed at families.

“The Golden Compass” has become the latest in a long line of sword-and-sorcery pics that are mining gold outside the United States, with four times as much coin (on its way to $300 million) overseas as it took in domestically.

“Compass” has many reasons for this discrepancy. But the film is far from the only one with such a gap. The five Harry Potters, the “Pirates of the Caribbean” and “Lord of the Rings” trilogies and “The Chronicles of Narnia” took in roughly two-thirds of their grosses internationally; several other recent fantasy titles such as “Enchanted,” “Stardust” and “Eragon” have also shown far more traction outside the United States.

“Stardust,” for example, was a dud domestically with $39 million but then regained its shine overseas with nearly $100 million.

Paramount Intl. president Andrew Cripps points to extensive promotional efforts that established British-made “Stardust” as a family-friendly film once it opened internationally. “Fantasy adds an element that makes it much more accessible,” Cripps contends.

So why do stories about wizards, fairies and talking animals score in foreign countries? Mark Zoradi, president of Walt Disney Motion Picture Group, believes part of the appeal is the nonspecific — although often vaguely British — locations.

“The fantasy genre travels exceptionally well, partly because there’s nothing that makes it geographically unique,” he notes. “For example, the Narnia films don’t take place in any specific country and its themes are pretty universal — good vs. evil, loyalty, the family sticking together.”

Disney is making its second and third runs at “Narnia” with “Prince Caspian” opening in mid-May and “The Voyage of the Dawn Treader” in pre-production for a 2010 release. Zoradi’s bullish on “Caspian,” which will open on a staggered pattern between May and July to coincide with school vacations.

“With ‘Caspian,’ we’re aging it up significantly, with Ben Barnes starring and more action and edginess than the first,” Zoradi adds. He’s hoping that the Mouse House can eventually make movies from all seven books in the C.S. Lewis “Narnia” series.

“We knew we had seven books to work with when we began on it so the first wasn’t just launching a movie; it was starting a worldwide franchise, as with ‘Pirates,’ ” he adds. “Doing multiple films is what justifies the enormous cost of the individual productions.”

Disney’s also hoping it can get a fourth “Pirates” going, and Warner Bros. has the sixth Potter pic (“Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince”) set for late this year. While a Warner sequel to “The Golden Compass” is possible, it seems a given that the studio will eventually make “The Hobbit” with MGM as a logical extension to “The Lord of the Rings.”

Disney’s also hoping to turn “Enchanted” — which is nearing $200 million overseas — into a franchise. “Enchanted” producer Barry Josephson, who spent a decade developing the project, believes the foreign numbers were exceptional given the lack of awareness of the movie prior to its opening.

“We got a lot of crossover audiences in foreign markets — people from outside the target audience of young girls,” he notes. “That happened because it was original enough to make it seem very fresh, but there were also universal themes that broadened its appeal.”

Hollywood execs handling foreign distribution contend that they can work magic offshore, given enough time to give a film a local feel via such means as signing up local stars for dubbing duties. The trick is to still offer all the trappings of a must-see tentpole picture since international audiences — who attend films less regularly than those in the U.S. — tend to opt for “event” type of films where the entire family attends at once.

That’s been the case for years with animated films, perhaps the most dependable overseas performers. Last year’s “Shrek the Third,” “Ratatouille,” “The Simpsons Movie” and “Bee Movie” combined for $1.4 billion in foreign grosses.

Par’s also expecting decent overseas business from “The Spiderwick Chronicles,” with a run that’s likely to easily exceed the domestic total, now at $60 million. And producer Josephson is planning another fantasy for Fox called “They Came From Upstairs,” centered on two families who discover aliens upstairs in their vacation cabin.

“Upstairs” is shooting in New Zealand, and Josephson believes the aliens are endearing enough to have worldwide appeal and perhaps launch another franchise.

“I think ‘They Came From Upstairs’ is a family movie with a lot of crossover potential,” he adds. “I’m hopeful that we’ll get a Christmas release.”

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