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Foreign moviegoers blessed “The Da Vinci Code” with a record opening of $147 million at 12,213 playdates in 79 markets — a stunning overseas launch that nearly doubled the domestic gross.

The international performance, featuring all-time records in the heavily Catholic markets of Italy and Spain, eclipsed by $2 million the record set during the same frame a year ago by “Star Wars: Episode III — Revenge of the Sith.”

Sony execs trumpeted the results at a press conference Sunday at Cannes, where “Code” received a critical drubbing four days earlier. “Our worldwide day-and-date release strategy has paid off handsomely with this amazing record,” said Mark Zucker, president of distribution for Sony Pictures Releasing Intl.

Pic’s combined foreign and domestic gross of $224 million represented the second-best opening after “Sith,” based on Friday-Sunday domestic grosses; with Wednesday domestic openings, “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” and “War of the Worlds” also have slightly higher global takes than “Code.”

The thriller’s international numbers caught foreign distribs off-guard, as most execs had expected “Code” to open outside the U.S. at about $100 million at best. Instead, it finished better than $50 million ahead of what had been 2006’s top weekend gross from “Ice Age: The Meltdown,” and it took in more than double the solid foreign opening “Mission: Impossible III” drew two weeks ago.

“This opening gives the business a real shot in the arm and means a great trailering opportunity for the other summer films,” one rival exec noted.

Sony’s offshore marketing has stressed both the popularity and mystery of Dan Brown’s novel, Tom Hanks’ star power and the international look and feel of the pic, set entirely in France and the U.K. “Code” performed well in every market, topping $11 million in half a dozen territories.

The U.K. took the top spot among “Code” grosses with $15.7 million at 1,098 playdates. It was followed by Germany with $12.3 million at 1,154, France with $11.6 million at 999, Italy with $11.5 million at 908, Japan with $11.3 million at 893 and Spain with $11.1 million at 755.

In Italy, “Code” accounted for an impressive 70% of the weekend grosses, with auds apparently undeterred by downbeat critical notices. “Everyone is going to see the movie the first weekend out of the great curiosity,” one Roman exhibitor noted, adding that it wouldn’t be apparent until the second weekend “if the negative criticism will influence the box office.”

South Korea generated a solid $9.5 million at 386 engagements, followed by Australia with $6.4 million at 563, Mexico with $6.2 million at 768 and China with $5 million at 393 — the fourth biggest opening for a U.S. film in that market.

Half a dozen other markets topped $2 million, led by Brazil with $4.6 million at 500, Taiwan with $4.1 million at 161, Russia with $3.7 million at 470, Denmark and Holland with $2.1 million each and Belgium with $2 million at 125.

“The Da Vinci Code” will face competish internationally next weekend from Fox’s day-and-date launch of “X-Men: The Last Stand,” which is opening in a similarly massive fashion at 10,000-plus playdates. Both pics are expected to prosper, at least until soccer’s World Cup starts on June 9, representing a potentially huge distraction for international moviegoers until after the July 9 final.

UIP’s third weekend of “Mission: Impossible III” finished a distant but decent second with $22.2 million at 7,092 playdates, representing a 46% hold from the soph sesh. South Korea continued to be the top “MI3” performer with $4 million, down 41% for a $27.5 million cume, followed by the U.K. with $3.4 million, off 34% for a $23.3 million total.

UIP execs believe the performance demonstrates ongoing offshore traction for the Tom Cruise vehicle in coming weeks. “MI3” has cumed $163.2 million internationally — only $16 million better than “The Da Vinci Code” — and $266 million worldwide, with Japan not opening until July.

Other pics stayed below the radar as rivals continued to mostly avoid challenging “MI3” and “Code.” UIP opened CG toon “Over the Hedge” day-and-date with $760,000 at 136 screens in a trio of Asian markets — Singapore with $410,000 at 26, Malaysia with $180,000 at 42 and the Philippines with $175,000 at 68.

UIP’s planning to move into major markets with “Hedge” in coming months via openings tied to major holidays.

In holdover biz, “Ice Age: The Meltdown” continued to attract family audiences in its eighth frame with a solid $4.9 million at about 6,000 locations, led by $891,000 at 803 in Germany for a Teutonic cume of $56.5 million. Foreign cume for the toon has hit $428.5 million, and the worldwide total has moved past $617 million.

BVI’s “Scary Movie 4” grabbed $1.6 million to push cume to $63.6 million. However, Warner’s second frame of “Poseidon” showed little traction amid heavy “Code” competition, sinking 65% to $1.53 million at 670 screens in half a dozen Asian markets; foreign cume is $7.2 million. Best “Poseidon” numbers came from India, with $402,600 at 175, and Singapore, with $278,200 at 60.

Pedro Almodovar’s “Volver” opened respectably against “Code” in Italy with $1.2 million at 304, on par with the Spanish helmer’s “Bad Education.” Warner Bros. acquired the drama for distribution in Spain and Italy.

UIP’s “Inside Man” also cracked seven figures for the frame, with $1.1 million at 900 in 30 markets to raise its foreign take to $85.8 million. BVI’s “Eight Below” grossed $900,000 to raise offshore cume to $35.8 million, and its kidtoon “The Wild” took in $800,000 to push the international total to $32.3 million.

(Sherri Jennings in Rome contributed to this report.)

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