Major Hollywood Studios Set Foreign Box Office Record in 2011

"Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2"
"Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2"
 Warner Bros.

Another year, another foreign box office record.

While the major U.S. Hollywood studios faced a fair share of hurdles in the domestic market, offshore box office for “big six” notched a record $13.6 billion in 2011, according to preliminary studio figures.

That’s a seven percent increase from 2010’s record take of $12.7 billion, which marked a 20 percent leap from the 2010 figure thanks largely to the astonishing $1.476 billion offshore take last year of Avatar. While the percentage gain this year is comparatively modest, a new record is still a new record.

“Overall, admissions in 2011 remained constant with 2010,” said Veronika Kwan-Rubinek, Warner Bros.’ president of international distribution. She noted that the appeal of films exhibited in 3D has not diminished overseas, and that six of the year’s top 10 foreign grossers were presented in that format.

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The year’s biggest title, Warner’s Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 drew 54 percent of its total $953 million in foreign box office from 3D venues. Anthony Marcoly, president of Paramount Pictures International, said his studio’s top grosser, Transformers: Dark of the Moon (which grossed $771 million in the year), “saw 74 percent of the international grosses come from 3D.”

Then there was the China factor. Marcoly said the market “proved to be [Paramount's] highest grossing international territory for the first time,” generating for the distributor’s films $303 million in box office this year.

Said Warner’s Kwan-Rubinek, “The biggest growth story came from China, which increased more than 30% to gross nearly $2 billion for the year. China remains the biggest digital and 3D footprint outside the United States, with over 3,000 3D screens.”

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The bad news is that the import quota imposed by the Chinese State Administration of Radio, Film and Television limiting foreign-made films to 20 titles yearly remains firmly in place despite pleas from the World Trade Organization. As important, the extremely low rate of rentals return to foreign distributors – on average 15 cents of each box office dollar – also remains the practice.

Said one major studio international exec, who asked anonymity, “China is still a boom town (if you get your films in), but there is no movement relative to quantity of titles accepted or revenue share.”

Paramount was easily the year’s top studio in terms of foreign box office, notching a company record of $3.2 billion – the first time any Hollywood major has exceeded $3 billion in foreign box office in a single year. Paramount’s take was 60 percent higher than its comparable 2010 figure, and 56 percent ahead of the company’s previous box office record established in 2008.

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Besides director Michael Bay’s Transformers, Paramount released Kung Fu Panda 2 ($501 million), Thor ($268 million) and Captain America: First Avenger ($192 million). Still in release are Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol and DreamWorks Animation’s Puss in Boots, which are expected to notch $201 million and $260 million, respectively, by the end of the week.

Warner Bros., last year’s top-grossing studio beating 20th Century Fox by a whisker, finished a firm second this year with $2.860 billion in foreign box office. It marked the company’s second biggest offshore year ever, down 2 percent from the $2.93 billion grossed in 2010.

Other Warner’s gross generators beside the latest Harry Potter sequel were The Hangover Part II ($330 million), Final Destination 5 ($120 million) and Green Lantern ($118 million). Still in release is Sherlock Homes: A Game of Shadows, which has captured $88 million overseas thus far.

No. 3 of the big six was Disney, which projects 2011 foreign box office of $2.17 billion, down 6 percent from the $2.3 gathered last year, which set the company’s overseas  record. Top title by far for the year was Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, which tallied $802.6 in offshore box office, more than three times its domestic gross. Cars 2 came in with $368.3 million, nearly twice what it grossed in the U.S. and Canada.

Fourth in box office rankings was Fox, which while it lacked an Avatar this year, boasted of a range of titles that performed at least reasonably well offshore. The studio reported $2.150 billion in foreign box office, down from the $2.92 billion reported in 2010.  Top titles were Rio ($343.9 million, nearly twice its domestic gross), Rise of the Planet of the Apes ($306 million) and Black Swan ($222.5 million).

Sony came up with $1.830 billion for the year with live-action/animation title The Smurfs leading the list of winners ($416.6, nearly three times its domestic gross), and Steven Spielberg’s The Aventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn – which Sony co-distributed with Paramount offshore months before its Dec. 21 domestic opening ($265 million). The Tourist starring Johnny Depp scored well foreign, drawing $221.1 offshore of which $140.7 derived from Sony-handled territories in 2011.

Universal reported $1.3 billion in 2011 foreign box office, 9 percent ahead of the comparable 2010 figure. Its biggest title by far was the latest in the turbo-charge fast car franchise, Fast Five, which grossed $419 million offshore. The latest Roman Atkinson comedy, Johnny English 2, did well foreign grossing $154 million while surprise comedy hit Bridesmaids took in an impressive (comedies often don’t travel well overseas) $119 million.

Key independent Summit Entertainment says it grossed $753.7 million on the foreign theatrical circuit this year, with the latest in its girl-loves-vampire sequel, The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 1, generating an estimated $410 million of the total. Summit also said that Cannes Festival top prize-winner, Tree of Life, has grossed $48 million offshore to date (including territories handled by Fox and other distributors.) 

An interesting aspect of the 2011 overseas was the accelerated pace of major studio acquisitions of local-language product playing in various offshore markets. Notably successful in this regard was Universal release of Office Romance in Russia, which grossed $12 million; and Sony’s handling in the same market of Vysotsky: Thank God I’m Alive, a biopic of a legendary Russian figure, which has drawn $27 million so far in Russia alone. 

2011’S TOP 10 FILMS OVERSEAS

 TITLE                                                          FOREIGN B.O.       DOMESTIC B.O.

(Distributor)                                                                                           (In Millions)                  (In Millions)                     

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2 (Warner Bros.)  $953                                     $381 

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (Disney)               $802.6                                 $241.1

Transformers: Dark of the Moon (Paramount)                               $771                                  $352.4

Kung Fu Panda 2 (Paramount)                                                        $501                                   $165.3

Fast Five (Universal)                                                                           $419                                   $267.7

The Smurfs  (Sony)                                                                            $416.6                                $142.6 

The Twight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part I (Summit)                    $410                                $267.7

Cars 2 (Pixar/Disney)                                                                         $368.3                              $191.5

Rio (20th Century Fox)                                                                         $343                                 $143.6

Rise of the Planet of the Apes (Fox)                                                  $306                                 $176.7

SOURCE:  Studio figures.

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