Recession remedy: Pics set for world stage

'Quantum,' 'Madagascar' sequel among the fall crop

As they dole out their holiday goodies, international distribution honchos say the movie business is "relatively stable" despite the global economic turmoil.

High-stakes bets are being placed on Sony/MGM's latest James Bond offering, "Quantum of Solace"; DreamWorks Animation/Paramount's sequel "Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa"; and Fox's remake of the 1951 sci-fi classic "The Day the Earth Stood Still." Fox's Baz Luhrmann Western adventure "Australia" is placed in the "highly promising" class, and there's always hope that another "Mamma Mia!" might be lurking.

With the last lap of the 2008 moviegoing season getting under way, overseas boxoffice revenue (as of Sept. 28) for the major studios is running slightly behind last year's record level: $7.4 billion to 2007's $7.5 billion.

Paramount Pictures International, Universal Pictures International, Warner Bros. Pictures International and 20th Century Fox International are among the MPA companies -- one fewer than a year ago -- that topped $1 billion in this year's January-to-September boxoffice race. All six of the major studios hurdled $1 billion overseas by the end of 2007, a history-making accomplishment.

Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures International hit the $1 billion benchmark last weekend, and Sony Pictures Releasing International is confident that Bond will take it past the desired peak during the holiday season.

"Quantum," the 22nd entry in the 007 franchise, takes off Oct. 31 in the U.K., France and Sweden, expands to most of the world in November and December and winds up in Japan on Jan. 24.

"We expect that major European markets and Australia will play the film through the holiday season," said SPRI distribution president Mark Zucker, recalling that the 2006 Bond entry, "Casino Royale," brought in $65 million "from Christmas onward."

Sony anticipates additional support from selected markets that will be showing company product from now through December, including the comedies "Pineapple Express," "The Step Brothers" and "The House Bunny"; the Samuel L. Jackson thriller "Lakeview Terrace"; and the horror mystery "Quarantine."

Disney's overseas distribution arm, basking in its record 14th consecutive year in the $1 billion-plus ranks, is banking on "four event-caliber Disney-branded properties to excite the broadest range of moviegoers," WDSMPI president Anthony Marcoly said. Teenage merrymakers are expected to line up for the big-screen debut of "High School Musical 3: Senior Year," which raises the curtain day-and-date with the U.S. in about 20 markets Oct. 24.

"Beverly Hills Chihuahua" barks its way through selected markets during November and December, while Adam Sandler will tell his "Bedtime Story" adventures in about 30 countries day-and-date with the U.S. on Dec. 25 and 26. Disney's 3-D family comedy "Bolt" has a number of key dates during November and December and opens New Year's Day in Australia. And Disney/Pixar's animated hit "WALL-E" winds up in Japan starting in December after a more than $220 million-plus run that started in late June.

A corporate decision to move "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince" to summer 2009 leaves Warner Bros. Pictures International without a powerhouse entry for the holiday season. But with more than $1 billion already collected from foreign multiplexes, due largely to "The Dark's Knight's" surprise offshore performance ($460 million), WBPI distribution president Veronika Kwan-Rubinek is confident the international arm can more than hold its own in the fall sweepstakes.

A diverse lineup of Warner Bros. films that will be around in overseas markets through year's end includes the Jim Carrey comedy "Yes Man"; the Ridley Scott thriller "Body of Lies," starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Russell Crowe; and the Richard Gere-Diane Lane romantic drama "Nights in Rodanthe." In addition, Warners will release the Brad Pitt-Cate Blanchett fantasy "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" on Dec. 26 in Australia day-and-date with the North American bow under Paramount, which holds domestic rights. Local distribution commitments fill out Warners holiday slate: Til Schweiger's comedy "1 1/2 Knights" in Germany in December and Nobuo Mizuto's drama "252" in Japan, also in December.

Fox International, in the $1 billion-plus ranks thanks to five high scorers before summer season, is putting all its efforts behind two tentpoles for the year-end period, co-president Paul Hanneman said. "Earth" is headed for a huge day-and-date rollout starting Dec. 10, with some 10,000 prints in about 60 markets set to be working by Dec. 19. Luhrmann's homegrown "Australia," a pre-World War II Outback cattle-ranch actioner, is set for some 57 markets on or close to Christmas Day. Italy comes aboard in January and Japan in February.

The foreign arms of Paramount and Universal, marking their second year as stand-alone companies after severing their joint venture in United International Pictures, have moved from also-rans to pennant contenders.

Paramount, mainly through its association with DreamWorks and Steven Spielberg, is on target to reach $2 billion at the overseas boxoffice by the end of the year, PPI president Andrew Cripps said. And hopefully triggering that push is DreamWorks Animation's "Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa," the sequel about the New York zoo animals who this time wind up in Africa. The film, opening widely during November and December, "is the big family picture for Christmas and will play through the holidays," Cripps said. The Nickelodeon/Paramount production "Angus Thongs," called the British "Mean Girls," will be in a few select markets during the holiday period.

Comic-book adaptations and the amazing "Mamma Mia!" propelled Uni's foreign arm beyond the $1 billion yardstick by the end of the summer and set the stage for the company's best boxoffice year, apparently leaving it sufficiently secure to go after "discerning adults" and more or less taking a counterprogramming position during the year-end period. Executive vp international Duncan Clark said that Clint Eastwood's Cannes-heralded "Changeling" is booked for selected markets during November and December and Working Title's "Frost/Nixon" will take off in Australia on Dec. 26.

But Uni still has its big gun in place. " 'Mamma Mia!' will be in theaters at Christmas in many markets," Clark said. On top of that, he said that the DVD will be released during the holidays, calling attention to the "uncharted territory" that will have the movie and video available simultaneously.