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‘Star Trek Beyond’ Must Score With Foreign Crowds to Justify Sequels

For five decades, the Starship Enterprise has boldly gone where no one has gone before, exploring distant worlds and bringing a message of peace and inclusion to the distant reaches of the universe.

Despite the onscreen planet hopping, the “Star Trek” films have remained stubbornly parochial in their appeal, at least until J.J. Abrams rebooted the series in 2009 with a younger cast and an emphasis on action sequences and space battles. Now Paramount, the studio behind the science-fiction series, is banking that the franchise’s newly globalized appeal will continue with “Star Trek Beyond.”

“We’re showing that ‘Star Trek’ is a brand that is strong around the world,” said Rob Moore, Paramount’s vice chairman.

He believes that the film could do as well or even improve upon the performance of the previous film in the series, 2012’s “Star Trek Into Darkness,” in Latin America and in Asia. That’s particularly important because the latest film did substantially worse than its predecessors when it debuted in the United States this weekend. “Star Trek Beyond’s” $59.6 million haul was down 15% from “Into Darkness'” $70.2 million debut and off 20.7% from the $75.2 million debut of 2009’s “Star Trek.” With a hefty $185 million price tag, “Star Trek Beyond” will need to perform well overseas if it wants to make it into the black. Domestically, it will be lucky to top out at $200 million.

It’s a familiar predicament, one that isn’t limited to the “Star Trek” films. “When you look at the United States this summer, you get the sense that the market is a lot softer for live-action sequels and remakes than it was last summer,” said Moore.

It’s nearly impossible to produce a major Hollywood blockbuster for less than $140 million and to market it globally for less than $100 million and change. Consequently, the only way to make back that kind of investment is to resonate with crowds overseas, particularly in countries like China and Brazil where the box office continues to grow.

In some cases, these markets are enough to compensate for weak domestic performances. Films like “Warcraft,” “Ice Age: Collision Course” and last summer’s “Terminator: Genisys” have turned a profit or at the very least been rescued from steep write-downs because they’ve played well overseas. Others, such as “Ghostbusters,” remain question marks — the ongoing viability of their franchises remain in question until foreign returns start to trickle in. And, an unhappy few, the “Legend of Tarzans” and “Alice Through the Looking Glasses” of the world, couldn’t find salvation regardless of what time zone they ventured into.

Industry observers praise Paramount and Abrams for figuring out ways to extend “Star Trek’s” horizons beyond the 50 states. They note that the studio made a big push for “Star Trek Beyond” at this year’s CineEurope, a gathering of international exhibitors, bringing out Simon Pegg, who co-stars as the engineer Scotty and the film’s co-writer, to debut exclusive footage.

Even more important, Paramount brought on Alibaba to invest in “Star Trek Beyond,” just as it did on “Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation.” The Chinese e-commerce giant will help cover the merchandising and promotional costs, and is also serving as a brand ambassador of sorts to the Middle Kingdom. The association worked well in the case of the latest “Mission: Impossible” sequel, which grossed $135.7 million in China, an impressive 25% jump on the previous film in the franchise.

It wasn’t that long ago that a “Star Trek” film was lucky to do 30% of its business from foreign markets. Even 2009’s “Star Trek” reboot, despite hitting $257.7 million domestically, couldn’t even hit $130 million overseas. That changed with “Into Darkness,” which racked up more than half of its $467.4 million global gross from abroad. It was a shift in thinking that had to happen, particularly with the domestic box office remaining flat.

“Part of it is a wiring thing,” said Greg Foster, CEO of Imax Entertainment. “You have to re-wire your efforts so you’re not just thinking domestically.”

Despite the hard work, the results internationally are mixed, signaling that “Star Trek Beyond” may face some headwinds on its path to profitability. The film opened in first place in 16 of the 37 markets where it launched, grossing a respectable $30 million. However, that was 14% below what “Star Trek Into Darkness” did in the same geographic spread, and the film appears to have been hit hard by the heat wave in Europe. In the United Kingdom, for instance, the opening grosses were 15% below “Star Trek” and 37% below “Into Darkness.” In Germany, they were down 29% from “Into Darkness.” And in Italy they were 8% below “Star Trek” and trailed “Into Darkness” by 5%.

“The franchise is drifting,” said Jeff Bock, an analyst with Exhibitor Relations. “The momentum has slowed overseas.”

The story could still change. There are still several major markets left to open, including South Korea on Aug. 18, Brazil on Sept. 1 and China and Mexico on Sept. 2. That’s why many analysts expect that the Enterprise won’t be hauled into dry dock any time soon. After all, Paramount has already announced a fourth film in its rebooted series and the studio is about to embark on a new television series.

“These characters resonate no matter who you are or what part of the world you are living in,” said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at comScore. “Even if it’s subtitled or dubbed, this series is still a global phenomenon.”

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