Overseas b.o. boosts studios' grosses

While Stateside box office has struggled to hit its stride this year, staggered overseas release dates among major studio titles, along with local hits in territories like Germany and Spain, have helped international grosses prop up the studios’ bottom lines.

The spin from the glass-is-half-full box office pundits goes like this: although domestic B.O. is down 19% in 2011, international grosses are down by only 12%. And even a depressed domestic box office isn’t that traumatic, since 2010 had the front-loaded first-quarter pair of blockbusters “Avatar” and “Alice in Wonderland.” (In fact, studio slates in general were more front-loaded last year to avoid competing with soccer’s World Cup.)

But thanks to a larger pool of territories (many, like China and Russia, growing rapidly), overseas grosses are still picking up more of the slack this year than in recent history.

“We’ve been seeing this dynamic shift for some time,” says Fox Intl. co-prexy Tomas Jegeus. “But there are certain types of films, particularly fantasy films, that really work internationally but have fatigued somewhat in the U.S.”

Looking ahead, the 2011 summer sesh is expected to provide global box office a welcome boost, at least on paper. A larger-than-usual number of tentpoles have B.O. observers buzzing, most notably the newest installments from high-wattage franchises like “X-Men,” “Pirates of the Caribbean,” “Transformers” and “Harry Potter,” and even toon sequels “Kung Fu Panda 2″ and “Cars 2.”

Paramount will kickstart the summer season internationally with “Thor,” debuting the film in nearly every major overseas market a week before the film’s domestic bow May 6.

Par Intl. prexy Andrew Cripps says the early rollout gives “Thor” an extra week of play time before Disney’s “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides” launches the weekend of May 20. Early bow also is timed for the May Day holiday, a fruitful period at overseas multiplexes, Cripps says.

Of the top 10 international markets, three (the U.K., Brazil and South Korea) have improved on year-to-date 2010 totals. Blighty is up 5% thanks to “The King’s Speech” and “Paul,” while South Korea saw a 22% rise through March 24, with help from “Gulliver’s Travels.” Brazilian box office has done the best so far this year, tracking a steady 23% ahead of the same period in 2010, with 3D toon “Tangled” its biggest 2011 grosser to date.

Strong returns from those holiday holdovers point to a significant perk for foreign markets, since delayed releases help spread the wealth among less-populated first quarter dates.

In Blighty, “The King’s Speech” launched its campaign via distrib Momentum on Jan. 7, becoming that market’s highest-grossing film this year with $68.2 million, also accounting for 30% of the film’s $226 million overseas cume. Pic’s U.K. take more than doubles the market’s next-best pic, Disney’s “Tangled,” with $32 million since its release there Jan. 28.

Both films launched during Thanksgiving weekend in the U.S., though “The King’s Speech” benefited domestically from a platform release — as well as awards momentum — that carried it well into 2011.

January in particular, while often a low B.O. month Stateside, historically has been prime play time overseas — that’s largely because major studio titles are often timed to profit from overseas holidays such as Chinese New Year and lengthy school breaks.

“We’ve always loved the January corridor for opening our Christmas blockbusters,” says Veronika Kwan-Rubinek, prexy of international distribution for Warner Bros. She points to Warners’ past January successes like “Sherlock Holmes” and “I Am Legend.”

That play period has helped foreign tallies keep a leg up on domestic totals, Kwan-Rubinek says, added to market stabilization of local films launched after January. Films like Dany Boon’s “Nothing to Declare” in France, and Til Schweiger’s “Kokowaah” in Germany reigned atop their respective markets for multiple weeks, boosted by locally popular talent.

“Nothing to Declare,” Boon’s follow-up to his 2008 blockbuster “Welcome to the Sticks,” bowed early February in Gaul and has cumed a boffo $68 million there. Meanwhile, “Kokowaah,” driven by Schweiger’s massive popularity, held the No. 1 slot in Germany for four straight weeks, cuming $39 million to rank as the market’s top film so far this year.

Warners Intl. is distribbing “Kokowaah” in Germany, as well as Spain’s “Torrente 4: Lethal Crisis,” which scored the market’s best-ever opening with $11.7 million on March 11. Universal made good recently in Russia with local romantic comedy “Office Romance,” which commandeered 42% of the local box office — or $5.2 million — when it debuted there on March 17.

Despite the strong numbers, regional hits and hearty holdovers weren’t able to compensate for last year’s “Avatar”-“Alice” one-two punch in most major European markets, which also were hit hard by severe winter weather conditions.

“You’re always going to have a huge outlier like ‘Avatar’ or big local product to skew year-to-year comparisons,” Jegeus admits. “But now I think you (there will be a ) market paradigm that’s not going to shift that much over the next few years.”

French box office totals are down 14% vs. last year, while Spain is running behind 2010 by 13% and Italy, by 15%. German B.O., however, is off 21%, the most of any major European market where weather was the biggest deterrent, Jegeus says.

Meanwhile, China — the fourth-highest grossing market so far this year behind the U.K., France and Japan, respectively — is trailing last year’s year-to-date totals by 16%. Digital rollout in China has been a significant prop for the market, and considering “Avatar” earned $194 million there during first quarter 2010, the most of any other international market, China’s decline is less significant.

Indeed, “Battle: Los Angeles” was a major hit for China over the March 18-20 weekend, debuting with $11.8 million on 3,968 screens — the widest release ever for a non-Chinese film.

In Japan, however, box office is down 27%, with further declines expected over the next few months as the country grapples with the aftermath of the devastating earthquake and tsunami.

Local police thriller “SP: Kakumei-hen,” distribbed by Toho, topped the Japanese B.O. for its second weekend in a row, with a local cume of $10.7 million, while the market’s other six holdovers recorded gains compared with previous weekends, evidence that perhaps some auds are returning to the theaters. Still, studios already have delayed major releases until further notice, including Warners’ “Hereafter” and Sony’s “Battle: Los Angeles.”

Given the trend of steady year-round returns at the oveseas box office, this year’s second- and third-quarter titles could give 2011 overseas totals its needed boost — something studios are counting on.

Mark Schilling in Tokyo contributed to this report.

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