Foreign auds brace for blockbusters

This summer, Hollywood will find out if it can Americanize the world box office by having it adopt the U.S.’ summer blockbuster season.

With four multibillion-dollar franchises — “Pirates of the Caribbean,” “Transformers,” “Harry Potter” and “X-Men” — up against high-profile projects like “Green Lantern” and “Captain America: The First Avenger,” the season’s summer blitz pushes blockbusters out within weeks of each other, leaving little room for much else.

For studios, the trick will be to promote the glut of films; for exhibs, conditioned to staggered release patterns during the summer, the test is how to manage the embarrassment of mass-release day-and-date riches. The majors will also have to deal with the fact that overseas audiences are not used to the frantic onslaught of big movie titles in the summer frame.

Last year, the biz did its once-every-four-years scramble to avoid the World Cup soccer tournament that typically sees overseas auds abandon the plex. And while the tourney didn’t have the adverse affect most bizzers had anticipated, it forced studios to delay summer tentpoles until after the World Cup ended in July.

This year, though, it’s full speed ahead for distribs.

Paramount’s “Transformers: Dark of the Moon,” the third offering in the franchise, launches the weekend of July 1, just two weeks before Warner Bros. rolls out its final “Harry

Potter” installment July 15. The glut will continue in August, when 20th Century Fox’s reboot “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” which opens throughout the world, will compete with Par’s “Captain America” and Universal’s “Cowboys and Aliens,” both of which debut in late July, and will continue to open in some territories in August.

“There are a lot of movies, and they’re going to require a lot of advertising, but I think people are prepared for that,” says Fox Intl. co-prexy Paul Hanneman. He adds that overseas marketing costs can be as high in some territories as in the U.S., but that’s because studios sometimes have to start promoting a pic sooner than usual to get the word out.

Par kickstarts the tentpole season overseas a week before it does in the U.S., with comicbook pic “Thor” bowing in every major overseas market the weekend of April 29. The studio used a similar strategy for “Iron Man 2,” distancing the film from Universal’s 2010 day-and-date tentpole “Robin Hood.” Par’s delayed approach worked, as “Iron Man 2″ wound up grossing more than $300 million internationally.

This time around, Par looks to give “Thor” an added week of overseas playtime before Disney goes global with the summer’s first franchise offering, “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides,” set to open day-and-date globally with the U.S. on May 20 in every major market.

Dave Hollis, exec VP of theatrical exhibition sales and distribution at Disney, says pics like “Pirates” are most capable of weathering an overstuffed international market — “Pirates” will have two weeks before Fox’s “X-Men: First Class” opens — because of built-in anticipation and audience awareness.

“It’s one of those films we know people will set aside the time to see, regardless of when they were last in the theaters and when they plan to go again,” Hollis says. “It becomes appointment filmgoing.”

Perhaps the most profound effect of the studio blitz will be felt by local films, which are avoiding the season in much the same way the studios fled before the World Cup.

Arne Schmidt, a spokesman for German multiplex operator Cinemaxx, expresses his frustration at the summer’s abundance of tentpoles.

“There are many starts in a very short period of time,” Schmidt notes. “Yet, I am convinced that the strong German productions are (positioning) themselves well against international blockbusters.”

Local title “Vicky and the Treasure of the Gods” — Germany’s first live-action 3D production — will bow in that territory via Constantin on Sept. 29. The delayed bow is timed for fall school holidays, but also is meant to avoid other studio 3D tentpoles aimed at families like “Kung Fu Panda 2″ on May 26, and “Cars 2″ on June 24.

Regardless of format, one Spanish exhib admits that audiences for both local fare and tentpoles are compatible, “but the problem comes when a frame is saturated with several bows or when a blockbuster holdover shows significant stamina along with new bows.”

Some summer titles can lose traction in Europe, where the majority of moviegoers enjoy outdoor activities or go on vacation. Though Schmidt admits most auds will make time for films like “Pirates” and “Harry Potter,” comicbook titles such as “Thor” and “Captain America,” set for a July 22 release, may have a tougher time with European auds, particularly in Germany, where superhero pics are generally ignored.

The challenges of managing the summer glut won’t fall entirely to exhibs. Studios also will shoulder a significant portion of the load by planning release dates based on consumer appetite and by staggering releases in consideration of the local competitive landscape.

Disney’s Hollis contends staggered release dates do have their upsides — namely, the ability to tweak territory-specific marketing campaigns based on how a film is received in other parts of the world. “When something runs and is bigger than you expect, you might decide to spend a little more aggressively elsewhere,” Hollis says.

But staggered releases also can run a higher risk of piracy, Hollis adds, as well as deflating global anticipation for major releases. That doesn’t happen with day-and-date bows, which can capitalize on the enthusiasm of a worldwide platform — a valuable asset when looking to distinguish a film in a crowded pipeline.

Studios hoped to alleviate some of the strain on summer months by releasing major titles earlier in the year, just as Fox and Sony did with their respective “Rio” and “Battle: Los Angeles.”

“I’d rather have those tentpoles now than in summer, because that’s when attendance always drops, no matter what’s playing,” says Italian exhib Lionello Cerri.

While the Italian market has been increasingly in play during the summer, it remains one of the territories in which prospective moviegoers most abandon the cineplex for the sand when the sun comes out.

But regardless of weather or other potential distractions, Fox’s Hanneman is optimistic at the prospects of the biz’s worldwide infrastructure being able to support Hollywood’s big bet.

“These are bold, new times for us in a lot of markets around the world,” Hanneman says. “If you have a two-week window between releases in a crowded market, you are fortunate.”

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