'Mamma Mia!' dances to overseas b.o. success

Women turn out in droves despite negative reviews

"As a movie musical, it's a train wreck." That's how one reviewer greeted Universal's stage-to-film adaptation of "Mamma Mia!" And that review was only one of a batch of disastrous notices. But even the staunchest detractors conceded the film's feel-good quality -- "a massive mess, but it's fun ..." and many found "a soft spot for the songs of ABBA."

But "Mamma's" stalwart overseas fan base of mostly women apparently never heard of film critics. Millions shelled out more than $300 million to date at overseas multiplexes, making the film starring Meryl Streep the highest-grossing musical of all time in the foreign market. The loyal aficionados of the stage musical and of 1970s Swedish pop group ABBA accounted for more than $100 million to date in boxoffice revenue in the U.K. alone, where the film -- the top-grossing film of 2008 and the fifth-highest ever -- still is going strong in its 10th week of release. And it's Universal's fourth-highest-grossing film of all time in the international market, where "Mamma" is running 113% ahead of domestic in boxoffice revenue, Universal said.

Universal executives, to say the least, are overwhelmed by "Mamma's" takeoff overseas, where movie musicals do not usually catch on easily. "It did better than we thought only in terms of its amazing legs," said David Kosse, president of London-based Universal Pictures International. "We knew it would open and play in all markets, not just musical markets, but we did not expect it to be the No. 1 film of the year in about 10 markets."

There are many anecdotal stories about people seeing the film more than once, Kosse said, including one about a woman in Germany who claims to have seen it 71 times.

The international marketing campaign, relying heavily on the amazing worldwide popularity of the original stage musical, started before the film went into production. "We presented the results of the stage show by territory to our staff, and even presented a video showing the audience reaction in theater to the musical around the world," Kosse said. "We started out targeting first the hardcore fans of the musical, then sold to ABBA fans, then romantic comedy fans, all the time emphasizing the comedy, the music and the universal story line."

The original stage musical, created and executed by producer Judy Craymer, director Phyllida Lloyd, and writer Catherine Johnson, started out in London on April 6, 1999, and subsequently has been performed in about 160 cities around the world in 11 different languages. About 30 million people, representing more than $2 billion in earnings, are reported to have seen the stage show, which still is running side-by-side with the movie in several countries. In January, the stage rendering became the longest daily running show in the history of Russian theater and has established all sort of records from Broadway to Hong Kong. It has been hailed as the world's most-successful musical ever.

Universal's reported $52 million film production, carried out by the same creative team as the musical, premiered June 30 in London at the Odeon Leicester Square for a one week exclusive run, then opened wide July 3 in U.K. and other European countries July 10 before its July 18 U.S. bow. Universal said at that time that it was launching the film overseas because it was "very much a Euro-based phenomenon with the music of Swedish rock band ABBA and the birth of the show as a smash hit in England."

With 16 more markets opening in the next two months and with the international run ending in January in Japan, a $400 million-$450 million foreign gross is not out of the realm of possibility, UPI's Kosse said.