Ticket sales rose 4% among the six majors

The international box office generated record revenues for Hollywood studios in 2008, even as the economic crisis that began in the U.S. quickly turned into a pandemic.

International ticket sales rose 4% among the six majors — Disney, Fox, Paramount, Sony, Universal and Warners. Hollywood studios have seen a 15% increase in foreign box office over the past two years, higher than the U.S. increase.

Biggest surprise of all at the overseas B.O. in 2008 was Universal’s Meryl Streep starrer “Mamma Mia!” Pic was the No. 3 title for 2008, grossing $428.5 million to become the most successful musical of all time.

That’s an astounding tally, considering it wasn’t all that far behind the No. 1 and No. 2 titles of the year, Paramount’s “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” ($469.5 million) and Warner Bros.’ “The Dark Knight” ($465.9 million).

Historically, American musicals haven’t traveled well overseas.

It was particularly notable that “Indy” and Universal’s “The Mummy: Return of the Dragon Emperor” worked so well, given that they’ve been absent from the bigscreen for years.

“Mummy” grossed an estimated $294.3 million to come in No. 7 for the year at the international B.O.

It was a particularly prosperous year for DreamWorks Animation and Paramount. Their “Kung Fu Panda” earned $416.5 million to come in No. 4 for 2008, while “Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa” finished at No. 8.

“Madagascar 2” is still in its run overseas, coming in No. 1 over the weekend of Jan. 2-4. Toon grossed an estimated $32 million from 6,290 playdates for a foreign cume of $339.9 million in its 10th frame.

Pixar and Disney also found plenty of fans with “Wall-E,” which grossed $289.5 million for the year to finish No. 9.

Disney’s other release making the year’s top 10 chart was “The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian.” Film, from Walden Media, grossed $278 million, far ahead of the film’s domestic gross. (In recent days, Disney announced it is passing on upcoming “Narnia” films. Walden is shopping the project.)

Sony took the No. 5 and No. 6 spots on the list of the 10 highest grossers. Will Smith’s summer pic “Hancock” cumed $396.4 million, while James Bond installment “Quantum of Solace” earned $376.6 million.

Paramount led the majors with $2.04 billion in foreign grosses in 2008. It’s only the third time in history that a studio has crossed the $2 billion mark. Two previous studios were Warner Bros. and 20th Century Fox.

In 2008, WB came in No. 2, posting revs of $1.81 billion. Universal followed with $1.71 billion.

Fox finished in fourth place at $1.6 billion, led by “Horton Hears a Who!” ($142.5 million). Sony placed No. 5 at $1.38 billion, while Disney’s revs totaled $1.37 billion.

After “Mamma Mia,” perhaps the biggest lesson of the year was that foreign grosses continue to often outpace domestic ticket sales.

Take Fox’s “Australia,” directed by Baz Luhrmann. Released in North America over Thanksgiving, pic has earned $46.7 million domestically. The epic, which didn’t begin its overseas run in earnest until Christmas, has already grossed $83.6 million abroad.

“Australia,” with $21.4 million, did well enough to essentially tie with Disney’s family film “Bedtime Stories,” with $21.5 million, for the No. 2 spot over the past weekend at the international box office.

French auds have largely disregarded local critics’ negative reaction to “Australia.” The Oz epic dipped a respectable 22% in its second frame toward a $9.8 million cume for Fox.

“We are very happy. We took second spot for the second weekend in a row, which is great at this time of year,” said Fox sales topper Frederic Monnereau. “French audiences tend to show love for a good, audience-oriented director like Baz Luhrmann.”

In Spain, Fox’s “Australia” took the B.O laurels for the second week in a row. The Nicole Kidman-Hugh Jackman romancer has definitely seduced Spanish auds. Luhrmann’s epic romance — down just 25% in its soph sesh — is doing better biz than predicted, with $8.9 million to date.

Archie Thomas in London, Ed Meza in Berlin, David Hayhurst in Paris, Emilio Mayorga in Madrid and Michael Day in Rome contributed to this report.

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