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‘King’s’ ransom in o’seas coffers

U.K. leads foreign B.O., pic 27% ahead of 'Tower' totals

Thank the Lord for “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King.”

That was the mantra from international distribs and exhibs as 2003 drew to a close amid sizzling returns for the finale of Peter Jackson’s Tolkien trilogy.

In its first dozen days, New Line’s “King” hit $270 million in 38 territories — an impressive 27% ahead of the 12-day total for “The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers” in 30 nations. Most heartening were the signs of long-term playability for the epic:

  • Moviegoer interest remains sky-high due to the combo of solid reviews, awards-season buzz and the trilogy-ending status.

  • Exhibs believe the 200-minute runtime, which has limited the number of showings, means many potential customers hadn’t yet seen “King” in its opening two frames.

  • Strong second-frame holds, indicating repeat viewers and across-the-board demographic appeal.

Blighty led the way, with “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” ringing up $48 million in its first 12 days, or 52% of the final takings for “Two Towers” in that market. The 12-day German takings were a close second with $45 million, amounting to 60% of the total cume for “Two Towers.”

“King’s” soph sesh was strong enough to surprise some Teuton exhibs, with one multiplex operator opining that the outlook remained stable for the coming weeks as well, with viewers spread out over a longer period due to fewer shows per day. “Time works for the film, and it will remain No. 1 for quite a long time,” he added.

In Australia, “King” grossed $8.7 million in its opening weekend, while UIP’s debut of “Love Actually” grabbed $3.6 million. In Taiwan, where Fox handles “King,” the pic cumed $7.3 million and distrib estimated “King” accounted for an impressive 88% of moviegoing in that territory.

Distrib execs noted the first two frames of “King” benefited from an absence of head-to-head competish from new releases. As a result, the most powerful rival performer as 2003 came to a close was BVI’s “Finding Nemo,” which led the market for the five weekends before “King” opened.

“Nemo” had fished up $415 million offshore as of Dec. 29; with its domestic total of $339.7 million, the Disney/Pixar pic had posted a worldwide cume of $755 million for 2003, besting Warner’s “The Matrix Reloaded” at $738 million.

Spanish grosses for “King” hit $22 million in 12 days, or 60% of the final gross for “Two Towers” in that nation. “Nemo” had cumed $23.6 million in Spain after 31 days and posted a 33% jump in biz during the post-Christmas weekend. The pair accounted for 53% of that market on the last weekend of 2003.

The closest contest came in France, where “King” cumed $31 million and “Nemo” remained within hailing distance. In its fifth weekend, “Nemo” declined by only 1%, taking in $6.6 million to lift the cume to $50.6 million.

Though distribs expect “King” to exceed the $581 million mark set by “Two Towers,” “Nemo” will has plenty of life left, with BVI mavens forecasting the animated comedy will top $500 million in foreign biz by the end of its run.

In Japan, where “King” won’t open until Feb. 14, “Nemo” turned in its fourth straight No. 1 perf and boosted its cume to $48.1 million. Warner’s “The Last Samurai” remained a solid No. 2 player during that period, with $41.5 million in its only major offshore outing.

In Italy, where “King” is set to launch Jan. 23, a pair of local pics dominated — De Laurentiis’ “Natale in India” (Christmas in India) and “Paradiso a l’improviso” (Unexpected Paradise). The former generated biz in a similar range to last year’s “Natale sul Nilo” (Christmas on the Nile); the latter’s success was viewed by one exhib as a surprise that marked a triumphant return for director Leonardo Pieraccioni.

“With two Italian films at the top of the list, it has been a good Christmas,” one film booker noted.

“Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World” found the going a bit choppy in the Italo market with a moderate $7.5 million in two weeks for BVI. One exhib called the seafaring epic “difficult,” adding, “It is really long and the all-male cast can exclude some audiences.”

Elsewhere, “Master” cumed $56.2 million in the 34 offshore territories handled by Fox.

Other than “King,” distribs limited new releases to a few markets. For example, UIP generated solid returns for “Honey,” which debuted in third at only 313 playdates, compared with “King” with 1,340 and “Nemo” with 990; bookers labeled the dance pic a positive surprise.

Mirroring its lukewarm domestic perf, “Peter Pan” fell somewhat flat in its initial foreign flights, with UIP reporting $4.9 million after its premiere frame in the U.K. and New Zealand and its second week in Australia.

BVI’s “Freaky Friday” pushed its offshore cume to $29.2 million, helped by respectable German biz.

Christian Koehl in Cologne, Sheri Jennings in Rome, Sara Martin in Paris and Emiliano de Pablos contributed to this report.

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