May boxoffice down overseas

Strong releases not enough to top 2007 grosses

Call it the month that could have been.

What if "Speed Racer" hadn't tanked? What if "Iron Man" and "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" had played Japan like "Spider-Man 3" and the "Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End" did a year ago?

As it is, one distribution expert calculates that the overseas boxoffice for Hollywood films came to $620 million for the month versus $750 million in May 2007, about a 20% difference.

Just as flowers bloom in May, so do industry blockbusters -- particularly in an overseas market that accounts for 51% of worldwide boxoffice revenue. For almost a decade, May has become a more pivotal month for the international release of what distribution executives term the "key drivers" of the summer season. Those drivers frequently foretell the direction of the business for the full year.

In 2007, it was the May tentpoles that set the stage for the biggest year in industry history as the month unfolded with nary a casualty among an unprecedented slate of sequels and franchises.

The month's two behemoths -- Sony's "Spidey" and Disney's "Pirates" -- dominated, finding little competition as "Spidey" snared $500.9 million in May and "Pirates" looted $245 million for its end-of-May, six-day launch. By the end of their foreign runs, "Spider-Man" had pulled in $555.4 million from abroad compared with domestic's $336.5 million, and "Pirates" hoisted a record $663 million from overseas compared with North America's $309.4 million.

In the same month, DreamWorks/Paramount's "Shrek the Third" began a staggered rollout, registering about $23 million in May from only four markets and reaching $475 million at year's end vs. domestic's $336.5 million.

Come this May 2008, the month's lineup appeared as crowded as a subway at rush hour. Not only did presumed tentpoles -- Paramount/Marvel Comics' "Iron Man," Warner Bros.' "Speed Racer," Disney's "Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian," DreamWorks/Paramount's "Indiana Jones" -- open week after week, but, in an unexpected challenge, the major studios added a trio of romantic comedies to the May mix -- Sony's "Made of Honor," Fox's "What Happens in Vegas" and New Line's "Sex and the City."

The outcome? "More movies and less gross," as one distribution executive put it.

"Iron Man," which kicked off this May's overseas tentpole parade, picked up $95.5 million in a conventional Wednesday-to-Saturday opening in 57 markets and had collected $243 million overseas by month's end. Counterprogramr "Made of Honor" opened at No. 2 offshore to $6.1 million from 19 markets and reached $30.8 million at May's windup.

The international barrage in May -- an industry tradition since studios began finding it necessary to release major tentpoles day-and-date with the U.S. because of marketing and piracy concerns -- witnessed its first tentpole casualty this year when "Speed Racer" slowed down the month's second weekend with a skimpy $12.6 million bow from 30 markets, lapped by romantic comedy "What Happens in Vegas' " $24.2 million from 36 countries. By month's end, "Vegas" had taken in $96.3 million, while "Speed" could only manage $33.8 million.

A week after "Speed's" crash, family entry "Prince Caspian" started a staggered rollout, raking in a princely $23.3 million from only 12 markets and reaching $74.1 million by month's end from 19 territories. The final week of May saw Steven Spielberg's "Indy" take command with a $265.6 million total for the month while "Sex and the City" blasted off with a surprise $37.2 million from just 14 markets.

Looking forward, there's no stopping the scramble for May dates. Already lined up for May 2009 are Fox's "X-Men Origins: Wolverine," Paramount's "Star Trek XI," Universal/Working Title Films' period comedy "The Boat That Rocked," Disney's "The Hannah Montana Movie," Sony's "The Da Vinci Code" follow-up "Angels and Demons," Fox's "Night at the Museum 2" and Warner Bros./Sony's "Terminator Salvation: The Future Begins." Sony is handling the overseas release of "Terminator," which starts a limited foreign run day-and-date with Warners domestic release May 22, then goes wide in June.

And May 2010 is beginning to shape up. Already penciled in are the next "Chronicles of Narnia" movie and "Iron Man 2."