Studios pin overseas hopes on comedies


When it comes to the international boxoffice, summer 2008 could be no laughing matter.

Hollywood hit a record high of $9.4 billion last year when all six MPA companies exceeded $1 billion in foreign boxoffice revenue for the first time. But if surmounting that number weren't challenge enough, the studios have made it even harder for themselves this summer by relying heavily on comedies.

Overseas distribution honchos anticipate "a strong summer," but they're not as gung ho as they were in 2007, when an atypical number of tentpole sequels were erected.

"There's not remotely as many presold sequels as last year," one distribution source said. "It will be interesting to see how this year's new offerings will fare and if this year's sequels will do as well."

The heavy comedy lineup could pose a particular problem because they don't often travel well overseas. Last summer, the top five domestic grossers attracted lots of foreign coin -- Warner Bros.' "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix" hit the jackpot by collecting 69% of its $938.5 million worldwide gross overseas. By contrast, last year's top-grossing comedies in the U.S. hit the wall when they tried to appeal to foreign audiences: While Universal's "Knocked Up" was a knockout with a domestic gross of $148.8 million, it picked up just $70.2 million outside the States; similarly, Sony's "Superbad," which did $121.5 million domestically, scored just $48.4 million abroad.

Undaunted, the majors will challenge those odds this summer by unleashing an unprecedented batch of comedies -- along with the usual mix of tentpoles, franchise hopefuls, action adventures, family fare and animation.

Already, foreign sales experts are grumbling that three romantic comedies -- Sony's "Made of Honor," Fox's "What Happens in Vegas" and New Line's "Sex and the City" -- are arriving almost back-to-back during the May barrage, when they will face off against such potential blockbusters as Paramount's "Iron Man," followed by Warners' "Speed Racer" and Disney's "The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian." Then there's that 300-pound reincarnation from Steven Spielberg and George Lucas: Paramount's "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull."

Studio execs are crossing their fingers. Fox International co-president Paul Hanneman said the broad comedy "What Happens in Vegas," starring Cameron Diaz and Ashton Kutcher, will serve as counterprogramming to "Speed Racer" when it opens wide the weekend of May 7. And Warner Bros. Pictures International distribution president Veronika Kwan-Rubinek is hopeful that the spy spoof "Get Smart," an adaptation of the classic TV series, will prove a "big-concept movie" that reaches a mass audience by mixing comedy with action beats.

Don't count out that initial burst of rom-coms, though, because comedies that appeal to women occasionally do beat the odds abroad. In 2006, "The Devil Wears Prada" captured $201.6 million foreign, overshadowing its $124.7 million domestic tally. The year before, Will Smith, who consistently attracts sizable foreign audiences, saw the overseas returns on his romantic comedy "Hitch" surpass its domestic gross.

This summer, Sony is in the enviable position of offering Smith's latest movie, "Hancock," in which he plays a down-on-his-luck superhero. Combining superhuman slapstick with elaborate special effects, the movie opens day-and-date with domestic in early July and is set to reach 95% of the world later that month, with Italy and Japan coming aboard in September. Sony Pictures Releasing International distribution president Mark Zucker forecasts a "huge film."

In June, July and August, the comic boys' club really kicks in with a lineup of comedy stalwarts that includes Mike Myers ("The Love Guru"), Eddie Murphy ("Meet Dave"), Steve Carell ("Get Smart"), Adam Sandler ("You Don't Mess With the Zohan"), Will Ferrell ("Step Brothers") and Ben Stiller ("Tropic Thunder").

Those movies better amuse moviegoers because they will run up against a phalanx of comic-book superheroes -- "Iron Man," the Batman installment "The Dark Knight," "Hellboy II: The Golden Army," "The Incredible Hulk" and "Wanted."

There's some concern, too, about a dent in moviegoing because of competition from the quadrennial European Cup soccer madness -- the tournament runs June 7-29 -- and the Beijing Olympics in August.

To avoid conflict with televised soccer matches. Warners will bypass Europe during the soccer playoffs with "Get Smart" as the film moves out from June to August.

The time-zone difference with China puts most key markets out of the competitive sphere during the Olympics. However, Universal has arranged for the Asian-themed "The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor" to play China in late July, two weeks before the start of the Olympics and before its day-and-date Aug. 1 blastoff in 32 territories as well as the U.S.

Despite the growing prevalence of day-and-date, distributors also are tailoring release patterns with local markets in mind.

Warners' summer push starts May 7 with the Wachowskis' "Speed Racer," which revs up with key-market day-and-date openings before arriving in France on July 18 for the annual Fete du Cinema promotion. The studio's "Dark Knight" charges out July 18 with day-and-date bows in Australia, Latin America and most of Asia and makes its way around the globe in about three weeks, stopping in Japan on Aug. 9 for the Obon holidays.

Amid the competition, each of the studios has adopted a slightly different strategy.

Warners, the market leader last year with a record $2.24 billion at the offshore boxoffice, could dominate again because it is taking over foreign placements of New Line International product, starting with "Sex and the City," set for day-and-date launches in the U.S., the U.K., Germany, France and Italy at the end of May. New Line's "Journey to the Center of the Earth 3D," which Warners is releasing domestically, heads overseas July 11 day-and-date via territorial distributors still part of output arrangements and through Warners units in a number of overseas territories.

In addition to such Warners titles as "Speed," "Get Smart" and "The Dark Knight," the studio also is betting on Lucas, who is expanding his "Star Wars" universe with his first CGI-animated feature, "Star Wars: The Clone Wars," which starts with a day-and-date release Aug. 15.

Disney, sitting high after last year's summer triumphs "Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End" and Pixar's animated "Ratatouille," is keeping up its less-is-better practice by limiting its summer repertoire to two tentpoles.

"Once again we are looking to repeat this quality-over-quantity summer strategy with our release of the next installment of 'Narnia' and 'Wall-E,' the newest release from Disney/Pixar," said Anthony Marcoly, president of Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures International. Unlike "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe," which was released during the 2005 Christmas season, the second will be part of the May madness, while "Wall-E" will follow the June-to-September rollout pattern of "Ratatouille" last year.

Paramount will jump-start the summer with Marvel Studios' "Iron Man," which takes off at the end of April "in all markets that we have -- we do not have Japan, Spain, Germany or France," Paramount Pictures International president Andrew Cripps said. The studio then moves on to what appears to be a preordained boxoffice Goliath with the fourth installment of the Indiana Jones adventure -- Indy's first theatrical outing since 1989 -- which goes out day-and-date worldwide May 22 except for Japan, where it bows June 1.

PPI, which handled DreamWorks Animation's "Shrek the Third" last summer, also has boxoffice insurance in DWA's "Kung Fu Panda," the family comedy that will roll out June 6 in the U.S. before moving on to Asia later in June, Latin America in July and in Europe after the European Cup. The distributor's schedule is further augmented with the comedies "Love Guru" and "Tropic Thunder."

Fox International's hand is equally divided between comedy and the paranormal. "What Happens in Vegas" and the Murphy sci-fi comedy "Meet Dave," which bows date-and-date with the U.S. on July 11, will aim for laughs. Opting to spook moviegoers, M. Night Shyamalan's supernatural thriller "The Happening" goes worldwide in a massive day-and-date takeoff June 13, and the company's "The X-Files" sequel, reuniting David Duchovny's Mulder and Gillian Anderson's Scully, is set for a day-and-date start the weekend of July 26.

Of all the studios, Sony is making the biggest commitment to comedy. In addition to "Made of Honor" and "Hancock," it has Sandler's "You Don't Mess With the Zohan," set for a June-through-August rollout, and Ferrell's "Step Brothers" down for an August-through-October run.

Universal, on the other hand, is going the comic book route. Its "Incredible Hulk," another Marvel adaptation, opens day-and-date June 13 with the U.S. in 35 markets, followed by "Wanted" on June 27 in 33 territories and "Hellboy II" on July 11 in five (with the rest of the world set for July through October.)

Amid all that cinematic testosterone, it also has the musical comedy "Mamma Mia!" bowing July 3 in the U.K., with more overseas dates July 10, before it opens July 18 in the U.S. Duncan Clark, exec vp international distribution at Universal Pictures International, said the musical is starting out overseas because it is "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."

It could be a savvy strategy. Last year, UPI introduced abroad the comedy "Mr. Bean's Holiday," starring British comic Rowan Atkinson, five months before importing it to the States. The result: "Bean" captured $196.4 million from its foreign playdates, more than five times the $32.6 million it grossed in the U.S.