Changing global dynamics cause shift in strategy

It’s a running joke nowadays in Hollywood that the U.S. has become just another territory on the global B.O. scene.

But that hasn’t always been the case.

Not so long ago, a film’s domestic success at the box office used to spell the final word on its profitability. And while Stateside auds still shell out the most coin compared to any other country, a film’s total overseas B.O. performance continues to far outpace U.S. totals, often doubling (“Robin Hood”), sometimes tripling (“Prince of Persia”) domestic grosses.

This re-direction of the money train has made strategic and competitive rollout skeds even more dicey for distribs, and with several overseas roadblocks this summer — i.e. the World Cup soccer tourney and 3D congestion — studios were forced to “play it smart,” as one insider notes, providing a few lessons learned on the international front:

• Fewer day-and-date bows: Studios held mid-summer releases in most major markets to avoid head-to-head competition with the World Cup.

• More massaged marketing campaigns: Plenty of holdover pics already in the market yielded prime ad space for delayed titles.

• More forgiving rollout patterns: Studios went with territory-specific launches based on cultural tastes and auds’ affinities for a certain genre or celeb.

• Smaller window for piracy: Markets like Spain and Russia warranted earlier bows to decrease the risk of bootlegged pics.

Despite the decline in Stateside shares overall, a film’s domestic perf is not without its merit overseas. According to some B.O. experts, international auds and exhibs still care about how a pic plays in the U.S. — a stamp of approval with moviegoers.

“It’s the first litmus test of a movie in front of an audience,” notes Andrew Cripps, prexy of Paramount Pictures Intl. “If a film does well in the United States, all the better. Successful films get noticed and get attention.”

Cripps says the test holds especially true for American comedies, which typically rep tougher sells among overseas auds, and can benefit from positive word-of-mouth and strong Stateside grosses.

For a timely example, Par’s “Dinner for Schmucks,” toplining Steve Carell and Paul Rudd, is set to bow in the U.S. on July 30. Par plans to avoid bowing “Dinner” day-and-date, holding the pic in most international markets until late August and early September, with hopes of benefiting from a healthy start in the U.S.

Par’s decision to wait for “Dinner” also points to a stuffed overseas summer sked caused by the World Cup, which has forced studios to limit day-and-date rollouts in favor of a more staggered approach.

Warner Bros. debuted Stateside on July 16 its Christopher Nolan-helmed tentpole “Inception,” toplining Leonardo DiCaprio, a film that under normal circumstances would have justified a more expansive international day-and-date rollout. Instead, Warner bowed the pic in just nine territories, with $16.5 million. Blighty was the only major market to get the film day-and-date, where it opened to a standout $9 million.

Last weekend, however, Warner mounted an aggressive rollout strategy for “Inception,” expanding to 29 markets, including France, Japan and Australia, and by Aug. 1, just three weeks after its U.S. debut, “Inception” will be in approximately 50 territories. Meanwhile, Tom Cruise-starrer “Knight and Day,” from 20th Century Fox, went with a slower rollout, expanding to relatively the same bucket of territories a month after its domestic bow on June 23.

“Inception” and “Knight” both topline hugely popular stars (DiCaprio and Cruise) internationally, in pics with built-in foreign flavor. “Knight,” which has cumed $64.8 million as of July 19, fell mid-heat of the World Cup, while “Inception” benefited from its post-tourney launch date.

In an attempt to beat the World Cup heat, Disney launched “Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time” a week before its U.S. bow; so did Par with “Iron Man 2,” which has tallied an impressive (if not expected) $295.4 million in foreign box office receipts.

One of the summer’s biggest success stories, “Prince” nearly tripled Stateside revenues ($89.3 million), with a international haul of $238.7 million through July 19.

Both strategies successfully added a week of playability before the soccer-induced crunch. Universal and Fox also braved the pitches this summer with “Robin Hood” and “The A-Team,” respectively. “Robin Hood” scored standout marks overseas, totaling $204.1 million, while “A-Team” in only 18 markets, has reached a more modest $59.8 million. Pic will bow in the U.K., Germany and Spain in the coming weeks.

Meanwhile, a pair of highly anticipated 3D toons, “Toy Story 3″ and “Shrek Forever After,” also unspooled this summer, further cluttering the playing field. And while Disney and Par held their respective toons from markets like the U.K. and Germany until after the World Cup, both studios timed their releases to coincide with tots on school holidays.

“Toy 3″ opened day-and-date on June 18 in only 25% of the international market, including Mexico and China, but since has earned a boffo $267.5 million from 41 territories.

Likewise, “Shrek” kick started a limited overseas rollout earlier this summer, where in Russia, the toon become the territory’s highest-grossing opener ever, with $20 million. The toon then rallied in early July — more than a month after its initial release — totaling north of $50 million for two consecutive weeks. International totals for “Shrek” reached $297.9 million through July 18.

With “Toy 3″ and “Shrek,” as well as Par’s 3D tentpole “The Last Airbender,” still doing boffo business, Universal was forced to delay its 3D toon “Despicable Me” until October, when most European students are on vacation. The move also gives U more breathing room on the 3D front, as exhibs likely will lessen the 3D logjam with more 3D screens this fall.

And while “Despicable” waits its turn theatrically, a healthy crop of titles already in the market provide ample opportunity to drum up support for future releases.

Sony plans to roll out “Eat Pray Love” in Italy and Japan on Sept. 17, more than a month after its domestic bow. In the meantime, the studio will screen trailers in those territories to build word of mouth.

Jay Sands, senior VP of intl. distribution for Sony, says the studio will cater the film’s marketing campaign in markets where romancers typically play well.

“It’s really all about studying the international market, studying the competition and finding the best slot for your film,” Sands notes. “For instance in Japan, we tailored the campaign to young women because they’re primarily who goes to the movies.”

Sands insists that the global scene provides more flexibility with cultural sensibilities ranging from territory to territory. “In the U.S., you pick a campaign and you go with it,” he says. “But overseas, you have a lot more control over the bottom line.”

American comedies usually play best in overseas territories like Australia and the U.K., whereas in France, auds heavily favor local laffers. Italian moviegoers are typically swayed by star power, and family-themed pics tend to overperform in Mexico, where some 50% of the population is aged 30 and under.

Meanwhile, action pics usually play well in Southeast Asia and Spain, where Sony plans to launch “Salt” on Aug. 20. The studio will go day-and-date with its Angelina Jolie-actioner in India, Taiwan and Hong Kong on July 23.

According to Par’s Cripps, piracy also plays a major role in skedding international rollouts. For instance, Spain typically figures near the top of Par’s release skeds, Cripps notes. The territory was listed in a 2009 report from the Intl. Intellectual Property Alliance (IIPA) as one of the org’s recommended-to-watch territories.

Russia, which landed on the org’s priority watch list, also carries one of the highest piracy rates (79%) of any country. In turn, more than half of this summer’s major studio releases went day-and-date with the U.S. in Russia.

“The industry has responded very positively to the piracy issue in Russia by releasing a lot more films day and date, more so than any other market,” Cripps says. “Whenever you’re holding a big action movie for several weeks in big markets, piracy does come into play.”

And while Cripps insists studios are carrying on with business as usual, he says the summer’s worldwide woes are requiring they proceed with caution.

“It’s a small, congested summer period, and you’re either up against external factors like piracy, or other films,” Cripps says. “Sometimes you’ve got to pick your poison.”

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