3D pics help propel global box office to new high mark

Overseas auds have long clamored for more varied product from Hollywood, and in 2009 the biz’s potpourri paid off robustly. International B.O. revenues soared 9% ahead of the previous year, thanks to a number of factors, including the globe’s whole-hearted thumbs-up to 3D and the fact that auds embraced genres like sci-fi and American comedies that had often left them cold.

Ticket sales reached an estimated $16 billion in 2009, compared to $14.5 billion in ’08. Studio-funded local-language productions continued to cement their importance to the bottom line.

While, non-Hollywood fare continued to dominate in some countries, such as Japan and South Korea, in general, it was the majors that paced the box office Global grosses.

The top-grossing international territories in 2009 according to studio sources and Global Rentrak: Japan with $2.0 billion, up 3%; France with $1.8 billion up 6%; the U.K. with $1.7 billion, up 11%; Germany – $1.3 billion, up 18%; Spain with $965 million, up 9%; China with $910 million, up 44%; Italy with $891 million, up 5%; Australia – $835 million, up 7%,; Russia – $736 million, up 11%; Brazil — $567 million, up 20%.

A crucial — and long-awaited — addition to the top 10 territories was China, where B.O. revenues reached $910 million. That represented a massive 56% uptick from the year before as improved cinemas make filmgoing much more attractive.

Japan remained No. 1, followed by the U.K., France, Germany, Spain, China, Italy, Australia, Russia and Brazil.

According to Rentrak’s global arm, South Korea could be included in the top 10, with grosses north of $800 million. But studios stress caution, saying there are issues with accurate B.O. accounting in the territory. (In fact, many international tallies are estimates since some distributors warn that not all numbers are exact.)

Russia, a fairly recent entry to the top 10, dropped to No. 11, due to an 11% dip in ticket sales as the country got hammered by the economic crisis.

Otherwise, nearly all top territories saw gains. Even lower-yielding territories, including Venezuela, saw B.O. revs jumped 18%.

Here’s how the top territories ranked and fared in 2009, in order of their contributions to the global B.O. pie:

JAPAN

The Motion Picture Producers Assn. of Japan (Eiren) hasn’t yet released official figures for the year, but unofficially it’s looking like Hollywood fare only took three slots in the nation’s top 10 grossers, and 14 of the top 20.

Japanese dramedy “Rookies,” about a high school baseball team made up of delinquents, based on the popular Tokyo Broadcasting System show, came in at No. 1 with $92 million. TBS also produced the drama “Departures,” which not only scooped a foreign-language Oscar but earned $67 million. Other highlights: China’s “Red Cliff Part II,” the second installment of John Woo’s historical epic, grossed $60 million. The sequel was the top-grossing foreign film of the year, with $123 million worldwide.

Since Eiren calculates last year’s results minus December 2009 but including December 2008, Japanese numbers for “Avatar” will not make the 2009 cut.

Top Hollywood pics in Japan included Warner Bros.’ “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince,” which ranked second with $87 million, Michael Jackson’s “This Is It,” with $48 million and Disney/Pixar’s “Wall-E” with $43 million. Other titles seeing strong returns included Sony’s “2012,” Disney/Pixar’s “Up” ($40 million) and Sony’s “Angels and Demons” ($36 million).

U.K.

The U.K. enjoyed a stellar year, notching $1.7 billion in ticket sales — a healthy 11% increase.

A clutch of 3D pics, including “Avatar” as well as the animated trio of “Up,” “Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs” and “Monsters vs. Aliens” helped boost the box office. Also performing strongly were Hollywood fare with British elements, such as “Half-Blood Prince” and Guy Ritchie’s Christmas entry “Sherlock Holmes,” grossing $83 million and $25 million, respectively. Danny Boyle’s “Slumdog Millionaire” also scored heavily with Brit auds as the fifth highest-grossing pic of the year in Blighty, bringing in $50 million for distrib Pathe.

Brit films had a tougher year on their home turf, with none cracking $10 million in ticket sales. Ebbie Isitt’s low-budget improvised laffer “Nativity,” starring Martin Freeman, outperformed expectations to gross $8.3 million for distrib E1 Entertainment, which also enjoyed a box office bonanza with “New Moon” grossing $44 million.

St. Trinians 2,” the Michael Caine-starrer “Harry Browne,” and Emily Blunt drama “The Young Victoria” all performed solidly, grossing $10 million, $7.3 million and $8.3 million, respectively.

Other Brit titles, however, such as Working Title’s “The Boat That Rocked” and Sony Pictures’ “The Damned United” underperformed, with $10 million and $3.5 million, respectively. South Asian cinema continued to post strong numbers with Indian pics “3 Idiots” and “Love Aaj Kal” both breaking the $1.6 million theatrical barrier.

FRANCE

France smashed its alltime box office record, posting $1.8 billion in revs off 200.85 million admissions. The last time Gaul saw more tickets sold was 1982, with 201.9 million admissions.

As in other territories, 3D pics prospered. Fox provided France’s biggest titles: “Dawn of the Dinosaurs” ($66.8 million) and “Avatar,” which grossed $53.5 million through Dec. 31, for the best 2009 territory take outside the U.S. “Half Blood Prince” wasn’t far behind, with $52.8 million. France’s nostalgic comedy “Little Nicholas” was no. 4 with $48.2 million for distrib Wild Bunch.

Though France has one of the highest percentage of local fare in the world, U.S. titles still account for nearly 48% of returns, up from nearly 44% in 2008. French pics’ share dropped to 37% from 46% in 2008, which was driven by blockbuster “Welcome to the Sticks.”

By its own high standards, France’s production sector did not have a stellar year. Comedies were the exception, led by “Little Nicholas.” Luc Besson’s “Arthur and the Revenge of Maltazard,” distribbed by EuropaCorp, was tracking at $29.3 million through Dec. 29; and French coming-of-age dramedy “LOL: Laughing Out Loud,” distribbed by Pathe, grossed $28.9 million.

GERMANY

German B.O. was up 18% vs. 2008, scaring up $1.32 billion in revs, and homegrown pics were a big part of the success.

Michael Herbig’s kids adventure “Vicky the Viking” grossed $40.3 million, making it the most successful German pic of the year, followed by Soenke Wortmann’s medieval drama “Pope Joan” with $23.9 million, both from Constantin Films.

Dawn of the Dinosaurs” was the top Hollywood moneymaker with $81.1 million, followed by “Half-Blood Prince” ($63.8 million) and “Angels and Demons” ($49 million), according to Nielsen EDI.

The country’s other big hits included Senator’s “The Reader” with $20.7 million and Warner’s romantic comedy “Rabbit Without Ears 2,” helmer Til Schweiger’s follow-up to 2007 hit “Rabbit Without Ears.” The sequel has pulled in $18.3 million since Dec. 3 and looks certain to continue on long legs through 2010.

This year’s local market share is on par with that of 2008, when German titles made up nearly 27% of the overall box office, the highest share since 1991.

SPAIN

Spain’s box-office grosses were mucho bueno in 2009, an all-time record of roughly $965 million, up 9% over 2008 and 1% over 2004, the previous record-holder.

Reasons for the surge: Spanish auds showed an insatiable appetite for 3D titles, while there also was a boom in Spanish movies, which topped the charts for 10 weekends for the first time in more than a decade.

Spain’s top three titles were all 3D: “Up” ($35.8 million), “Avatar” ($34.5 million) and “Ice Age” ($31.2 million).

Among Spanish titles, Alejandro Amenabar’s “Agora” grossed a dazzling $30 million; toon “Planet 51,” $15 million; and sleeper hit “Cell 211,” nabbed $12.7 million. Paramount produced “Cell 211,” making it one of a handful of studio local-language productions finding their stride at the B.O.

CHINA

China’s B.O. boom continued unabated as revenues rose a spectacular 44% to $910 million, thanks to a sharp rise in the number of screens in what is potentially the world’s biggest market.

This means that the Chinese B.O. has maintained an annual growth rate of more than 30% for six years running. The government says China added an average of 1.65 new screens every day last year.

China produced 456 domestic films in 2009. China allows imports of only about 20 foreign films a year for theatrical release. The two top movies of 2009 were “2012,” which took $67.5 million, and “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen,” which took $63 million.

Homegrown epic “The Founding of a Republic,” celebrating the People’s Republic of China’s 60th anniversary, made $61 million.

ITALY

Italy’s box office scored a better-than-expected 5% rise in grosses to $891 million, according to national box office compiler Cinetel.

Admissions were stable at 99 million tickets, while the higher price of 3D tickets drove the country’s small but significant increase in total intake.

Top two pics were “Dawn of the Dinosaurs,” Paramount/DreamWorks Animation’s “Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa,” followed by Italian laffer “Christmas in Beverly Hills” from Filmauro.

Hollywood commanded a sizable 65% share, while the Italian share dropped some 5% to about 20%.

While most Italo exhibs are content with the outcome of what they feared would be a crisis-plagued year, the press and some of the local film community are up in arms over the absence of several English-language titles from local screens. Distributors blame the closure of 750 single-screen cinemas in urban areas for the tougher market conditions for niche titles.

RUSSIA

Russia’s longrunning bull market faltered in 2009, with B.O. receipts dropping by 11.4% from $830 million in 2008 to $735.7 million.

Admissions for the territory — which includes other former Soviet states but not Ukraine — were slightly up at 138.5 million compared with 133.9 million the previous year, reflecting tough economic conditions that saw the dollar value of ticket sales drop from an average of $6.70 to $5.30, although in local currency terms, ticket prices barely changed, according to figures collated by Russian Film Business Today.

Box office revenues had become a cash cow for producers, distributors and exhibitors. In 2008, grosses up were 47% alone. But the economic collapse in 2009 — particularly the sharp drop in oil prices, a key factor in Russia’s natural-resources dependent economy — kept many Russians at home.

The good news: Russia was a boon for 3D titles, thanks to new digital multiplexes. Top grossers of 2009 were 3D toon “Dawn of the Dinosaurs” ($44.6 million) and “2012″ ($36.5 million), Russian sci-fi adventure “Inhabited Island: Part One” ($21.8 million), “Half Blood Prince” ($18.7 million) and sequel “New Moon” ($18.6 million).

Top European movie was “Slumdog Millionaire” ($3.4 million), the highest grossing British film in the region’s history.

Russian films — a total of 78 releases — accounted for $176 million, just 27.9% of the territory’s total gross, down 16.8% on 2008′s figures when local language films took $211 million. Disney local-language production “Masters of Disguise” scored some of the biggest numbers ever for a family release in that country.

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