International box office hits new high in 2008

With tentpoles driving overseas moviegoing, Hollywood majors saw 2008 foreign grosses rise 4% and set a new record of $9.9 billion.

Amid a worldwide recession, the gain underlines the durability of the international biz. The six Hollywood distribs (Disney, Fox, Paramount, Sony, Universal and Warner Bros.) have now seen a 15% hike in foreign box office over the past two years.

It wasn’t all hearts and flowers for U.S. films overseas as “Speed Racer,” “Body of Lies,” “Max Payne” and “X-Files: I Want to Believe” underperformed.

And comedies continued to be a tough sell internationally as only a few laffers — “Sex and the City” with $252 million, “What Happens in Vegas” at $142 million, “Burn After Reading” with $82 million and “Meet Dave” with $38 million — substantially topped their domestic takes. “Tropic Thunder,” “Step Brothers,” “Pineapple Express” and “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” lagged in foreign markets as distribs often opted for limited runs.

Par in front

Paramount led the majors with $2.04 billion in foreign grosses in 2008, joining Warner Bros. and Fox as the only studios to have crossed that milestone in a single calendar year.

Its roster included the year’s top grosser with “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” at $469.5 million, “Kung Fu Panda” at $416.5 million, “Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa” at $305 million as of New Year’s Day and “Iron Man” with $214 million.

Warner came in second with $1.81 billion as “The Dark Knight” grossed $465 million, followed by Universal at $1.71 billion with “Mamma Mia!” leading with an astounding $428 million. Fox finished fourth with $1.6 billion even though its top grosser — “Horton Hears a Who! — was only 17th highest with $142.5 million.

Sony edged out Disney for fifth with $1.38 billion — over half of that from “Hancock” and “Quantum of Solace.” Disney totaled $1.37 billion, led by “Wall-E” with $289.4 million.

For its part, Warner’s grosses declined 20% from its record-breaking year in 2007 as it opted to push the sixth “Harry Potter” pic to next summer. It saw “The Dark Knight” turn in a stellar overseas performance at $466 million, more than doubling the previous high for the “Batman” franchise.

Warner will also be able to soon claim “The Dark Knight” as the fourth pic to gross $1 billion worldwide, thanks to a re-release on Jan. 23. It will join “Titanic,” “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” and “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest.”

Offshore tentpole biz remained mostly robust throughout the year as the top 10 pics combined for $3.7 billion, or $1.5 billion more than they grossed domestically.

Though tentpoles generated much of their foreign coin during the summer, international biz stayed solid in subsequent months despite the economic downturn — and despite the recently strengthened dollar, which means fewer greenbacks come back to Hollywood studios from foreign admissions.

“Filmgoing in general seems to have held up well in the fall and the Christmas season in most markets,” said Paramount Intl. topper Andrew Cripps. “Moviegoing is still a cheap family entertainment option and so far has proven resilient to the recession.”

Curiously, “Iron Man” couldn’t crack the top 10 among international performers in 2008 despite a $263 million foreign cume, or $55 million under its domestic total despite strong critical support. That’s a demonstration of the tough road faced by international distribs in launching franchises since moviegoing rates are generally far lower outside the U.S., with foreign patrons opting for the most recognizable fare.

Conversely, foreign takes for “Mamma Mia!” and “The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor” almost tripled the Stateside cumes. And 25 titles from the six studios topped the $100 million mark — up from 23 in 2007.

Current sesh

Over the first weekend of 2009, “Madagascar 2″ continued the trend of major returns on highly recognizable franchises as it easily won with $32.2 million at 6,771 playdates in 60 territories. Par’s animated sequel has led foreign biz for three consecutive sessions and cumed $340 million in overseas coin — $2 million ahead of the original “Madagascar.”

Sesh also reinforced the ability of the international market to partly salvage disappointing domestic runs. Fox saw “Australia” post solid holdover biz, off only 17% with $21.7 million at 5,000 in 51 markets to lift the foreign cume for Baz Luhrmann’s pricey epic to $82.7 million — $36 million ahead of its domestic cume.

The frame also saw Adam Sandler’s “Bedtime Stories” receive strong support with $21.2 million at 2,870 in 22 markets, lifting the international cume to $44 million. Sandler’s gradually become a decent foreign performer, with his last two pics — “Click” and “You Don’t Mess With the Zohan” — both hitting $100 million outside the U.S.

Fox’s “The Day the Earth Stood Still” continued to scare up respectable foreign biz with $12.1 million at 5,900 to push the international total to $128.6 million — $54 million ahead of the U.S. total. “Day” is the first Fox pic to hit the century mark overseas since last spring, when “What Happens in Vegas,” “Jumper” and “Horton Hears a Who” combined for nearly $500 million.

Two entries early in their runs continued to generate decent numbers: Warner’s “Yes Man” with $12 million at 1,800 in 21 markets and Disney’s “Bolt” with $11.9 million at 2,870 in 25 markets. And Summit’s “Twilight” continued to put the bite on respectable rather than blockbuster foreign grosses with $7 million at 2,350 in 42 markets for a $95.5 million cume.

Disney finished 2008 in last place — despite racking up its record 14th straight year with more than $1 billion — as it continued reducing the number of titles it releases. “Wall-E,” its top 2008 entry, led in Japan with $3.7 million in its fifth weekend, up 180%, to push foreign cume to $298 million.

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