Hollywood Puts Tentpole Stake in Summer (Cannes)

5:59 AM PST 05/12/2011 by Frank Segers
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Marvel/Paramount

After a lackluster first quarter, the studios are more than ready for blockbuster season to begin.

Message to European cinemagoers: brace yourselves.

Hollywood has every intention of keeping you hopping this summer as it rolls out via the foreign theatrical circuit more than 30 individual titles representing hundreds of millions in production costs and ranging from typical seasonal tentpoles to intimate festival dramas and modestly-budgeted comedies.

Included in the mix will be sequels galore — notably the latest in the Pirates of the Caribbean and Harry Potter series — two titles with Steven Spielberg conspicuously attached, a slew of family favorites and three times as many 3D titles as were released last year to take advantage of higher theater ticket prices.

Giving Summer 2011 special urgency is the fact that the calendar year’s first quarter foreign box office for the big six Hollywood major studios was dismal, down 23% from the year before. Distributors are betting that the summer season — which typically accounts from 40%-45% of a calendar year’s total box office — will reverse things.

“We are excited about this summer,” says Paul Hanneman, co-president of 20th Century Fox international. Andrew Cripps, president of Paramount Picture International, agrees: “This summer looks very strong on paper with no outside influence from major sporting events.”

Cripps refers to the 2010 World Cup soccer tournament in South Africa siphoning off moviegoers, particularly action movie fans, over the course of a full month right smack in the middle of last year’s key summer season.

The absence of World Cup distractions is not the only plus this year. Another is the current weakness of the U.S. dollar vs. the euro and other currencies, which effectively translates into more box office dollars being repatriated by distributors from foreign territories, providing what is informally known as a currency “bonus.”

In addition, foreign exhibition in surging markets, particularly China, appears to be adjusting to the increasing demands of 3D.

“Yes, we can expect Russian and China to play a big part in boosting the summer box office over last year, particularly with so many more 3D films in release,” said Veronika Kwan-Rubinek, Warner Bros.’ president of international distribution.

“In China, with more than four screens being built daily, and the number of 3D screens now exceeding 2,000 [representing the biggest 3D footprint outside the U.S.], it certainly looks like the market is headed for another record-breaking summer.”

According to Fox’s Hanneman, there were 23,449 digital screens internationally as of March, of which 16,721 are 3D venues. “Certainly there will be issues in some of the smaller markets given the number of 3D films in release [this summer],” he says, “but exhibition is quickly converting and building to take advantage of the international thirst for 3D.”
On top of all that, there is also the de facto lengthening of summer itself. “I think the thing that strikes me this year,” said Cripps, “is the extension of the summer season — mid to late April for Thor and Fast Five, right through the end of August this year.”

For many European cineastes and Hollywood-based distribution executives, May means Cannes, the platform for at least three overseas campaigns this year.

The biggest, of course, involves Saturday night’s out-of-competition Cannes bow of Walt Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, co-starring Johnny Depp, Penelope Cruz, Geoffrey Rush and Ian McShane, the fourth in producer Jerry Bruckheimer’s fantastically successful adventure-fantasy series.

The Pirates movies have grossed $2.7 billion worldwide so far with most of the money [$1.65 billion] originating from foreign distribution. Says David Kornblum Disney’s vp international theatrical sales and distribution, “[Cannes] is the major focal point of European film journalism, and it just happens to conveniently be taking place a couple of days before we launch our movie.”

After its Cannes premiere, Pirates will open throughout much of Europe on Wednesday, and worldwide the following Friday.

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