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After a decidedly downbeat 2005, international box office has recovered nicely this year, tallying $14.6 billion in grosses to mark an 11% gain.

That’s excellent news for Hollywood with the five major distributors — Disney’s BVI, Warner Bros., Fox, Sony and UIP, which handles Universal, Paramount and DreamWorks — seeing a hike in overseas grosses to $8.5 billion, up 8% over last year’s total. The figure’s still not final but it equals the $8.5 billion mark set in 2004.

Two tentpoles, “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest” and “The Da Vinci Code,” accounted for 8% of all international business this year, as they racked up a stunning combined total of nearly $1.2 billion in offshore grosses to finish fourth and 11th respectively on the all-time list.

The $14.6 billion figure, a preliminary estimate from 20th Century Fox, includes Hollywood majors, indie distribs and local producers around the world, but excludes local product in China and India. The study, performed by Fox Intl.’s exec director of sales administration Joe Ortiz, comes out three months prior to the Motion Picture Assn.’s worldwide estimates which will be issued at ShoWest.

The performance was particularly impressive given the major distraction provided by soccer’s World Cup, forcing studios to avoid opening tentpoles from early June to early July. On average, weekend admits during the period fell 20% in the 15 key territories, led by a 54% fall in World Cup host Germany.

The improved performance also stemmed from two factors: simple currency translation, as a weaker dollar meant more bucks returned to Hollywood coffers; and a surge in strong local films in key markets such as the two “Death Note” pics in Japan, “The Host” in South Korea, “Les Bronzes 3” in France and “Perfume: The Story of a Murderer” in Germany.

Well-known franchises worked best overseas in 2006. After “Pirates” and “Da Vinci Code,” five of the next six slots were occupied by “Ice Age: The Meltdown,” “Casino Royale,” “Mission: Impossible 3,” “X-Men: The Last Stand,” “Cars” and “Superman Returns.”

Those results represent a major endorsement of Hollywood’s plans for next summer, when it’s releasing an array of franchise properties such as “Spider-Man 3,” “Shrek the Third,” “Ocean’s Thirteen,” “Pirates of the Caribbean: The End of the World,” “Evan Almighty,” “Rush Hour 3” and “The Bourne Ultimatum.”

Perhaps the biggest surprise of 2006 came from the impressive overseas showing for “The Devil Wears Prada,” which grossed $186 million overseas as the Meryl Streep fashion comedy connected in all major markets, in spite of the usual hurdles faced by adult-oriented American laffers outside the U.S. “Prada” nearly matched the mega-priced “Superman Returns,” which was widely regarded as falling short of expectations despite grossing $190 million overseas.

The year also saw sharply increased competition among animated fare. Rivals avoided the “Ice Age” sequel in the spring, but the summer saw “Cars” and “Over the Hedge” battle for the family audience with “Cars” winning out with $210 million and “Hedge” coming with $180 million.

“Happy Feet” could go past the $100 million overseas mark this weekend, and “Open Season” topped $90 million outside the United States.

Fox won the box office title with $1.98 billion, led by the “Ice Age” and “X-Men” sequels and “Prada.” Both “Borat” and “Garfield: A Tale of Two Kitties” went past $100 million overseas.

Fox is also finishing the year with a rush, with “Eragon” having won back-to-back weekends to hit $85 million as of Wednesday and “Night at the Museum” poised to dominate the last frame of 2006. “Museum” had cumed $21 million overseas as of Wednesday, including $8.8 million from South Korea, $4.5 million from two days in the U.K. and $3.9 million from three days in Mexico.

UIP’s totals hit $1.83 billion — $934 million for Universal, $536 million for Paramount and $338 million for DreamWorks — to give the soon-to-be-dismantled distrib a total that was 19% behind its record-setting $2.26 billion combined total in 2005. Par’s “Mission: Impossible 3” was the stand-out for UIP with Japan and Korea delivering a combined $82 million, while U’s best entry came from $115 million of holdover “King Kong” grosses, followed by $100 million from “Miami Vice.”

BVI followed in third with $1.8 billion with “Pirates” and “Cars” leading the way. The Disney figure was its second-best ever, falling 4% short of its record-setting $1.88 billion in 2003, and came with the studio planning to cut back the number of releases.

Sony came in fourth with $1.62 billion with over half of that from “Da Vinci Code” and “Casino Royale,” which became the first James Bond pic to go past $300 million and will still be a significant player at this weekend’s box office. The 2006 perf nearly doubled last year’s disappointing total.

Warner Bros., which had been the best performer in four of the previous five years, saw the biggest decline with a 31% fall to $1.3 billion as “Superman Returns” and “Poseidon” didn’t meet lofty expectations, despite combining for $310 million overseas. But the year ended respectably with “Happy Feet” and “The Departed” connecting overseas, and Clint Eastwood’s “Letters From Iwo Jima” leading the Japanese box office for three straight weekends.

Still, the growing popularity of locally produced pics makes foreign turf even trickier for U.S. studios, particularly at a time when studios are reducing the number of pics they’re releasing.

“The international market is much more fractionalized,” notes Brian O’Shea, VP with Odd Lot Entertainment. “So with studios cutting back, there’s more opportunity for our releases and less competition for the indie distributors.”

QED chief Bill Block notes that foreign buyers have become far more diligent.

“What you’re seeing is the success of entrepreneurs, who are able to produce with more care and closer examination of the markets,” Block notes. “They are in a position where they can pick and choose rather than agreeing to take a slate of 10 studio pictures every year.”