‘Return’ rings in New Year strongly

'King', 'Nemo', 'Love', and others welcomed o'seas

As kids and adults returned from vacation, the B.O. predictably plunged by 40% in Italy and France and by a moderate 23% in Spain and 26% in Germany last weekend. But takings in Japan surged thanks to the Shogatsu holidays, U.K. receipts improved by 15% and biz stayed strong in Australia, where schools re-open at the end of the month.

Exhibs in most markets were delighted with the start to the New Year, driven by the “Lord of the Rings” finale, “Finding Nemo,” the resilient “Love Actually” and a bunch of rookies.

In its third weekend, “Return of the King” amassed $58.7 million from 8,826 screens in 45 territories — No. 1 everywhere except South Korea, where it was knocked off by the soph sesh of local actioner “Silmido,” and Mexico, where it was pipped by “Brother Bear’s” third caper. “King’s” estimated cume through Jan. 6 rocketed to $406.9 million, tracking 29% ahead of “The Two Towers,” a comparison that’s skewed somewhat by the fact the euro is worth 20% more vs. the greenback than a year ago. With Italy and Japan on the horizon, there’s no doubt the trilogy’s finale will zoom past the predecessor’s $583 million total. Peter Jackson-helmed epic notched an industry opening record in Poland and the biggest first day in local currency in Argentina.

“Finding Nemo” raced along to $461 million, ending the reign of “The Lion King” (which made $455 million) as the highest-grossing toon of all time overseas. The Disney/Pixar pic retained pole position in its fifth outing in Japan, ahead of “The Last Samurai,” which jumped by 70% in its fifth, which remarkably stands as its most lucrative frame.

Propelled by its lusty second week in Australia and juicy holdovers in the U.K, Germany and South Korea, “Love Actually” ascended to $139.5 million, with Japan ahead. The only places where the ensemble comedy hasn’t clicked are France, Mexico and Argentina.

“Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World” is on course to cruise past its disappointing U.S. total, but exhibs say it’s been handicapped by skewing heavily to males and older auds, excluding femmes and youngsters. The Russell Crowe starrer bowed buoyantly in France, considering it depicts the Gauls on the losing side, and in Thailand and New Zealand. Seafaring saga’s estimated cume hit $75.8 million, with Italy the top market, ahead of the U.K. and Spain, but it sank quickly in Germany. Yet to open in Japan and Latin America, it has $100 million in its sights.

American civil war saga “Cold Mountain” saw a sturdy start Down Under, on par with “Chicago,” although some bookers were hoping for a larger turnout from Nicole Kidman’s admirers. Miramax pic expanded successfully in its soph sesh in Blighty. There’s no special magic about “Peter Pan’s” journeys thus far, but the P.J. Hogan-helmed fantasy was a solid draw in its second voyage in the U.K. and in its third in Australia. Kidpic bowed 25% bigger than “Stuart Little” in Malaysia and passably in South Africa.

“Spy Kids 3D: Game Over” grabbed lots of spectators in Australia, spurring its estimated cume to $48 million in 24 markets, already overtaking the lifetime totals of the first and second editions. However Miramax’s pic was ho-hum in Italy, where the franchise hasn’t caught on.

Fox’s comedy “Cheaper by the Dozen” was a hoot in kid-friendly Mexico, its first major market. Distrib also was enthused by Brazilian pick-up “Sex, Love and Betrayal” (a remake of Mexican hit “Sex, Shame and Tears”) which opened impressively in Brazil, just behind “Return of the King.”

Julia Roberts’ marquee name ensured fair debuts for “Mona Lisa Smile” in Singapore and Taiwan, where femme-oriented films usually don’t resonate, and a lively second sojourn in Mexico.

After a pleasing run in Mexico, “Stuck on You” stuck pretty well in the U.K., despite one exhib’s fears about the “sick trailer which misrepresents a sweet film.” The Farrelly brothers’ laffer held less appeal in Austria, Switzerland and Germany, where it was outshone by the second turn of UIP’s “Honey.” Austria and Switzerland.

After earning a respectable $6.1 million in Asia, the Rock headliner “The Rundown” (retitled “Welcome to the Jungle”) pulled in an army of action fans in Australia, benefiting from a prime release date and a hefty campaign.

A sizable hit in its native U.K. and a decent earner in Oz and Sweden (but a muted performer in Italy), “Calendar Girls” posted tidy sums on 103 prints in Germany, where exhibs expect it will hang in for a while thanks to word of mouth. But the prospect of watching middle-aged matrons disrobe for charity wasn’t as enticing in France; its cume reached $48.9 million in 17 markets.

Italian auds continued to embrace helmer/actor Leonardo Pieraccioni’s comedy “Unexpected Paradise,” although noting it’s taking auds away from another local offering, “Christmas in India.”

Archie Thomas in London, Christian Koehl in Cologne, Sheri Jennings in Rome, John Hopewell in Madrid and Liza Klaussmann in Paris contributed to this report.

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