‘Batman’ begins to seduce o’seas auds

Figures fall short of last year's leaders during same weekend

With the first half of 2005 closing out, international box office has remained solid but not spectacular — particularly when compared with the supercharged 2004 results.

Warner Bros.’ launch of Batman Begins and Fox/New Regency’s sophomore session of “Mr. and Mrs. Smith” provided telling snapshots during the June 17-19 frame with an impressive $40.7 million at more than 8,000 playdates in 73 offshore markets for the fifth “Batman,” while “Smith” followed with more than $25 million at 4,700 screens in 47 territories.

Third place went to UIP’s “Madagascar” with $17 million from over 2,000 engagements in 19 markets, followed by the fifth frame of Fox’s “Star Wars: Episode III — Revenge of the Sith” with $8.8 million at 7,200 playdates.

But those figure fell short of all four leaders during the same weekend of 2004 — the third frame of “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” took in $44.9 million in 48 markets to lift its grosses past $265 million; the launch of “Shrek 2” rang up $32.2 million from 1,900 locations in 11 markets; the fourth weekend of “The Day After Tomorrow” came in third with $20.5 million at 7,600 playdates and the sixth weekend of “Troy” followed with $11.4 million at 4,700 screens in 59 markets.

Additionally, the first half of 2004 also saw “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” take in $425 million to go along with its $317 million from 2003 and “The Last Samurai” gross most of its $345 million international cume.

By comparison, only “Sith” has managed to tread the blockbuster territory this year with foreign grosses in the $360 million range as of June 21, led by $68.8 million in the U.K., $49.7 million in France and $44.4 million Germany.

UIP’s “Meet the Fockers” and Warner’s “Ocean’s Twelve” topped $200 million; seven other titles — “The Aviator,” “Hitch,” “The Incredibles,” “Kingdom of Heaven,” “Million Dollar Baby,”National Treasure,” and “Robots” — have eclipsed $100 million offshore in 2005 grosses.

“War of the Worlds” is likely to provide a major boost to 2005 grosses when it launches on June 29 following a massive promo campaign and the recent media frenzy surrounding Tom Cruise. The June 19 preem in London received lots of front-page coverage partly due to the watery prank played on the star by a TV crew working on a spoof show.

For the June 17-19 frame in key European markets, Brit biz was off 4% while Italian biz gained 6%.

Hampering Gallic returns was a run of sunny weather that pushed potential moviegoers out of doors. Despite bows by both “Batman Begins” and the eagerly awaited sequel to the French hit pic “Europudding,” “The Russian Dolls,” box office stayed flat last week.

“Dolls,” however, did solid biz in France, coming in at No. 1, with $4.2 million. By selling 662,329 tickets, “Dolls” managed to outdo its predecessor, which had sold 508,466 tickets in its first week.

“Batman” had less luck drawing French moviegoers into its cave: Pic took in $2.9 mil in its first week on French soil. That tally, however, markedly improved upon the franchise’s track record in France. The first “Batman” pic saw 243,832 admissions its first week in 1989, and the more recent “Batman and Robin” only snagged 130,869 tickets its debut frame. “Begins” saw a franchise high of 452,777 admissions.

Coming in at No. 3 in France, “Revenge of the Sith” saw admissions drop 55% in its fifth week, bringing its total to $41.5 million thus far. Locals say the pic has clicked with French auds thanks to its good word of mouth and dark themes.

In Germany, hot summer weather — not to mention Teutons’ tepid response to caped crusaders from Hollywood — were to blame for a 42% drop at the box office last week and a less-than-impressive bow by “Batman Begins.”

The Bat did land at No. 1, however, with just a $1.8 million weekend take that left local exhibs cold. But at least one optimistic booker is hopeful of Batman’s future once auds realized the film was “a good solid action movie … not in the silly vein as the past films.”

In Germany, comic heroes have not enjoyed the same sunny reception as they have in the U.S. First “Batman” sold 1.8 million admissions, and the later “Batman Returns” failed to even hit the 1 million mark. “Batman Forever,” meantime took in $8.1 million from 1.3 million viewers. And “Batman and Robin” $8.5 million, also from 1.3 million viewers.

The “Star Wars” franchise in Germany does have a more hearty fanbase. Perhaps that explains why “Revenge of the Sith” was downloaded more than 9,500 times from illegal Internet sites between May 23 and 29 and remains among the top 10 most downloaded films, according to German group Media Control. Of those downloads, 77% were for the pic’s German-dubbed version.

“Batman” also had a tough time in Spain, but the franchise has not been a torrid performer there since the first pic bowed in 1989 and made $9.5 million. Subsequently, “Batman Returns” grossed just $3.4 million, “Batman Forever” $4.1 million and “Batman and Robin” $3.9 million.

One Spanish booker points out that the comic character is not particularly popular in Spain and that ” ‘Madagascar’ has a far wider demo.” ” ‘Batman Begins’ is much darker,” another booker adds. “Also ‘Madagascar’ is far shorter, not lasting much more than an hour-and-a-half, so it had many more screenings than ‘Batman Begins,’ another booker says.

Despite a soft showing, “Batman” is getting positive word of mouth in Spain and in other key turfs, and exhibs felt that could possibly lift the pic, possibly towards the $12 million mark in Spain.

“Batman Begins” did perf best in the U.K. with an impressive $8.07 million at 514 screens in its first four days. The number lagged the $9 million opening from “Batman and Robin” and the $8.6 million from “Batman Forever” but bookers believe the sweltering weekend weather may have knocked down “Batman Begins” numbers by as much as $1.5 million.

Blighty prospects for “Batman Begins” are solid due to strong word of mouth and reviews along with the fact that the pic was shot in the U.K. with many Brits in key roles. The Batpic cut into the soph sesh of “Mr. and Mrs. Smith” with grosses down by over half but bookers blame the weather for the downturn and express hope that “Smith” can serve as effective counter-programming.

Italy, which saw a disappointing showing for “Sith,” generated a respectable $2.1 million opening at 586 playdates for “Batman Begins” following a promo visit by several cast members and director Christopher Nolan. Overall business was up a moderate 6% for the weekend but exhibitors had been hoping for much more.

“We are missing mid-range products and the burden of the box office is falling on these big films,” one Italo exhibitor says, adding that the tentpoles have become generally less interesting to movie patrons.

Rather than confront “Batman Begins” in every market, Fox has opted for a gradual release pattern on “Mr. and Mrs. Smith,” with China, France, Germany and Spain not set to open until July. Foreign cume as of June 21 had hit $75.6 million, led by $14.6 million in the U.K., $9.7 million in Australia and an impressive $6.7 million after just four days in South Korea.

UIP has employed a similar approach on “Madagascar” and racked up socko numbers thus far as its June 17-19 launches topped “Batman Begins” in Australia, Mexico and Spain. Cume as of June 21 had hit $31.8 million with the Oz total at $6.8 million, Mexico at $5.3 million and Spain with $4.1 million; Russian biz has been impressive with $6.7 million after 16 days.

U.K. audiences gave strong support to Carlos Sorin’s dog pic “Bombon el perro” with a screen average of nearly $4,000 at 15 locations. Bookers believe the film fest fave will show long legs in Blighty.

Fox has been the clear winner of the first six months, thanks to “Sith,” “Mr. and Mrs. Smith,” “Kingdom of Heaven” and “Robots.” As of June 16, its pics had cumed $153 million in the U.K., $23 million higher than UIP’s share; in Spain, its total was $74 million as of June 12, compared with $44 million for UIP and in Australia, Fox’s total was $68 million to UIP’s $51 million.

(Archie Thomas in the U.K., John Hopewell in Spain, Sheri Jennings in Italy and Ed Meza in Germany contributed to this report.)