Tentpoles woo worldwide auds

On April 28, Paramount and Marvel launched “Iron Man 2″ in 53 markets abroad — more than a week before its Stateside bow. The decision flew in the face of conventional wisdom about overseas launches, but it served as an apt metaphor: Hollywood is officially kicking off the summer with a foreign accent.

For decades, Hollywood’s summer tentpoles were decidedly American (“Forrest Gump,” “Apollo 13,” “Independence Day,” et al). But as overseas grosses became increasingly important — international now accounts for 65% of the majors’ box office — the studios started planting a bevy of overseas actors to films like “Pirates of the Caribbean” and “The Da Vinci Code” to help market them in local territories.

This summer marks the full flowering of that strategy, as a dozen tentpoles are proudly flying international flags over various aspects of a film, from casting to location shoots, financing to marketing.

Warner Bros. and New Line’s “Sex and the City 2″ takes the Manhattan quartet and drops them into the Arabian desert, decked out in six-inch heels and designer sunglasses. Sony’s “Karate Kid” remake shifts the action from California to China. “The A-Team,” from 20th Century Fox, follows a group of American Iraq War veterans, played by international stars like Northern Ireland-born Liam Neeson and South Africa’s Sharlto Copley.

Similarly, Lionsgate’s “The Expendables,” set to launch Aug. 13, offers an international macho dream team, including Jason Statham, Jet Li, Dolph Lundgren and Arnold Schwarzenegger, led by Sylvester Stallone, who also serves as director and co-scripter (with David Callaham).

These are in addition to the biggies that by definition had non-U.S. slants: Universal’s “Robin Hood,” Warner Bros.’ latest “Harry Potter” installment, Disney’s “The Prince of Persia,” Par’s “The Last Airbender” and Sony’s “Eat, Pray, Love” — and animated films, which have always been international-friendly since they’re routinely dubbed in the local language.

“I think now when the creative folks are putting a movie together — evaluating the idea, locations and cast — international appeal is a bigger part of the conversation,” says Par vice chair Rob Moore. “Because, ultimately, look at what happens when you get these movies right internationally.”

Par and Marvel obviously got it right. Despite Hollywood’s ongoing fears that pre-U.S. overseas bows increase the risk of piracy (sure enough, there were reports of bootlegs on the Internet soon after the rollout),”Iron Man 2″ quickly earned more than $100 million in those markets, signaling a potent international run that should ultimately outpace its predecessor as it plays from Abu Dhabi to Zimbabwe.

Paramount isn’t the only studio looking to reap overseas windfalls from savvy local appeal.

“Sex and the City 2,” which kicks off May 28 with day-and-date overseas bows, follows the ladies to Abu Dhabi. New Line says the decision to spotlight that emirate as the film’s overseas destination (Morocco was the actual shooting location) was not aimed at enticing conservative Middle East auds. The decision, rather, reflects the pic’s characters and vicarious desires of its target audience, and to provide a compare-and-contrast between the quartet and women in Arab countries.

Warner’s marketing campaign plays up the sequel’s overseas flavor: The trailer depicts the ladies lounging poolside in Abu Dhabi, while an advance poster shows a glamorous shot of star Sarah Jessica Parker glistening in the desert.

“Karate Kid,” set for a June 11 day-and-date release in Asia, swaps out the original pic’s L.A. setting for a more sensei-appropriate China. International martial-arts star Jackie Chan plays the wizened guru, with Jaden Smith as the titular kid. Sony hopes Chan’s overseas appeal, especially in Asian markets, will help the remake get some extra kick abroad.

“I think people like to see overseas settings, even in the U.S., and it certainly helps with your overseas grosses,” says Sony exec VP Jay Sands. “With ‘Karate Kid’ now set in China, it’s a lot more exotic than where the first one was set.”

As for “A-Team,” Neeson gained overseas cred with Fox’s 2008 sleeper hit “Taken,” which grossed $229 million worldwide; South African thesp Copley gained prominence with last year’s sci-fi phenom “District 9,” which earned $200.7 million worldwide.

Paramount faced a similar challenge to broaden the appeal of its “G.I. Joe: The Rise of the Cobra” last summer.

Korean star Byung-hun Lee was cast early, based on his popularity in key Asian markets, according to Paramount’s Moore. The decidely American property also featured international players like Christopher Eccleston, Sienna Miller and Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje to bolster overseas appeal. “Joe” went on to cume $309.8 million worldwide, with more than half coming from international grosses.

“A-Team” includes elements from the Middle East and European locales, including Germany. Pic is set to launch in the U.S. on June 11, with most international territories debuting the film later in the month. With the World Cup soccer tourney running June 11-July 11 and drawing much of the international attention away from the plex to the pitch, Fox decided to delay bows in some of the tourney’s most popular markets, such as Germany and the U.K., until August.

The World Cup — as well as the overseas May Day holiday — also featured significantly in the choice to launch “Iron Man 2″ early abroad. The advance rollout lengthens playability by adding two weeks before Universal’s Ridley Scott-directed “Robin Hood” enters the market. The “Robin” reboot stars a high-profile English cast alongside lead Aussies Russell Crowe and Cate Blanchett, which should translate well in English-speaking territories.

“When considering the long-term gross for a film like ‘Iron Man 2,’ if you can increase the international gross by 10% because of your distribution strategy, that could mean an extra $30 million overseas,” says Moore.

“Iron Man’s” first outing took in $267.8 million internationally, and its global haul was an impressive $586.2 million.

With the series already established worldwide, Par’s marketing team this time focused less on educating auds on the sequel’s storyline and more on underscoring the elements that worked for the first film. The promo campaign centers on the humor and globetrotting persona of arms dealer Tony Stark, played by Robert Downey Jr.

Disney starts releasing its aspiring franchise starter “Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time” internationally May 19, a week before the pic’s U.S. debut. Disney hopes the early bow will add playtime before the World Cup, but will hold off on major markets like Italy, France and the U.K. until after the tourney ends. Alongside topliner Jake Gyllenhaal, Disney assigned “Prince” an international cast, including Gemma Arterton, Ben Kingsley and Alfred Molina.

Hollywood studios also continue to use international voice talent to bring local heft to animated pics, especially among the genre’s younger aud who may not understand an English-language track. The summer’s two toon installments, “Shrek Forever After” and “Toy Story 3,” are dubbed in 37 and 39 countries, respectively. And while “Shrek” will debut in the U.S. May 21, and “Toy 3″ on June 18, both toons are skedded for staggered international rollouts to benefit from summer school vacations in June and July.

Notably, Disney has rebooted the first “Toy Story” films in 3D, and both “Toy Story 3″ and “Shrek” will be released in 3D, an increasingly important factor in the international distribution strategy.

Some studio observers suggest Warner Bros.’ decision to convert “Clash of the Titans” to 3D late in the film’s production was motivated heavily by overseas considerations, including the potential to reap premiums on ticket sales both in the U.S. and abroad (see separate story). “Clash” has earned 64% of its total $274.8 million international take from 3D-equipped screens.

Par announced in April its decision to convert its summer release “The Last Airbender” to 3D after showing converted 3D footage to director M. Night Shyamalan. The conversion cost between $5 million and $10 million, but given recent successes with 3D internationally, Par insists the format should more than pay for itself. The film is skedded to debut in most territories in July.

“When we decided to release ‘Airbender’ in 3D, international audiences certainly made an impact because of how much we’ve seen them respond to a 3D presentation,” Moore says.

Given the 3D heft and prospects for a handful of highly publicized tentpoles abroad, Fox Intl. distrib topper Joe Ortiz says Hollywood’s summer slate should travel well overseas.

“You have to change things up sometimes, and adding that international element doesn’t hurt things,” Ortiz says. “People aren’t traveling themselves, but they would like to do that in the movies.”

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