Hollywood Puts Tentpole Stake in Summer (Cannes)
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.
The opening in Cannes’ main competition section of Summit’s The Tree of Life, director’s Terrence Malick’s long anticipated period film co-starring Brad Pitt and Sean Penn, will precede its foreign commercial rollout on May 25 in France. A win at Cannes would be huge for this picture.
Warner Bros. is throwing a comedy into the May mix internationally on May 26 with the opening of the sequel to 2009’s The Hangover, which grossed about $190 million outside the U.S. and Canada. Directed by Todd Phillips, Hangover 2 costars Bradley Cooper, Zach Galifianakis and Ed Helms.
Bowing at the same time is the sequel 2008’s Kung Fu Panda, which grossed $416 million overseas, nearly doubling its domestic gross. A DreamWorks Animation-Paramount release, Kung Fu Panda 2 is voiced principally by Jack Black, Angelina Jolie and Jackie Chan. [A France opening is set for June 15.]
June shapes up as an exceptionally busy month as at least nine titles are primed for overseas playtimes.
Fox has four films in the hopper, notably the fifth sequel in the profitable X-Men franchise, X-Men: First Class, directed by Matthew Vaughn and co-starring James McAvoy and Michael Fassbinder, which opens June 1. Eight days later Paramount weighs in with Super 8, a sci-fi thriller co-produced by Steven Spielberg set in the 1970’s about a group of friends in Ohio witnessing a suspicious train crash. [Super 8 arrives in France on Aug. 3.]
In Mid-June, Fox will open overseas the latest Jim Carrey comedy, Mr. Popper’s Penguins, which Fox’s Hanneman describes as a “broad comedy with not only big laughs, but also real heart and a great message.” It’s about the change in a businessman’s life when he inherits six penguins. June 16 will see the release in Australia of Universal’s wedding-themed comedy starring Kristen Wiig, Bridesmaids.
Due June 24 is Bad Teacher, an R-rated comedy from Sony co-starring Cameron Diaz [as a foul-mouthed junior high school teacher] and Justin Timberlake. Opening June 29 is Paramount’s Transformers: Dark of the Moon, directed by Michael Bay, with Shia LaBeouf [minus Megan Fox] and Rosie Huntington-Whiteley co-starring in the third edition of the highly remunerative sci-fi robot franchise begun in 2007.
Talk about counter-programming. To provide comic relief from all the noisy action of the latest Transformers, Pixar/Disney is releasing overseas Cars 2, the sequel to the 2006 smash animation comedy. Directed and co-scripted by John Lassiter, the fast car adventure will feature the voices of Owen Wilson and Michael Caine, among others.
July will probably belong to Warner’s Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2, the eighth and purportedly the final title based on J.K. Rowling’s novels, the bases of the most successful movie franchise in history.
This one will be in 3D as well as in conventional 2D, and will co-star Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Helena Bonham Carter and Rupert Grint under David Yates’ direction. The Harry Potter series is far stronger draw overseas than in the U.S. and Canada, and has taken in $4.36 billion offshore over seven titles so far. July 15 is the big kickoff.
The month’s other big title is Paramount’s Captain America: The First Avenger, directed by Joe Johnston and co-starring Chris Evans, Hugo Weaving and Hayley Atwell. The saga of a military service rejectee turned superhero is based on the Marvel comic book. Foreign openings begin July 27, with a France opening set for Aug. 17.
The distribution pace picks up a bit in August with a half dozen titles in the hopper, notably Fox’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes, due Aug. 3. Fox considers this one a “smart summer blockbuster,” updating the Apes sci-fi series that was started by Fox 43 years ago
From Paramount comes Cowboys and Aliens, director Jon Favreau’s sci-fi-western about threatening spaceships arriving in Arizona in 1873. Co-starring Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford, Cowboys will be released offshore on Aug. 9 with a France opening set for Aug. 24.
To counter all this action, Sony will release The Smurfs in France on Aug. 3, and in other markets two days later. This is a Sony Animation co-production, a comedy in 3D about blue smurf creatures descending on New York City. The foreign run will continue through mid-September.
The final words go to Paramount’s Cripps: “What we need to top all this off is a cool, rainy summer in Europe.”