Summer 2006 boxoffice wrap

Hollywood's product proved potent as BVI, Fox and Sony crossed the $1 billion mark.

What a difference a year makes.

At this time a year ago, pundits in and out of the industry were crystal-balling the demise of conventional movie houses, contending that 2005 foreshadowed the end of more than a decade of uninterrupted growth at overseas film boxoffices.

But veteran international distribution executives blamed the worldwide boxoffice decline mainly on the product and saw 2005 as only a blip on the radar, following 2004's all-time record year. So far this year, it's a whole new ball game.

For the first eight months of 2006, the overseas boxoffice bounced back as a batch of blockbusters bulldozed their way triumphantly across all territories. International distribution experts estimate that the overseas market has increased 4% to 5% over last year's Jan. 1-Aug. 31 period. Two films grossed more than $500 million, one more than $400 million, three more than $200 million and five more than $100 million.

"This proves that the 2005 weakness was product-related," Sony Pictures Releasing International distribution president Mark Zucker says. "The overall success this year, with many records broken, shows that people are still in love with the movie experience."

As if by rote, all international distribution executives voice similar appraisals of this year's comeback. "It always comes down to strong product," says Andrew Cripps, president of United Pictures International, the overseas distributor for Universal, Paramount and DreamWorks. "The first six months of this year leading up to the summer months were far ahead of last year and helped bridge the period of the World Cup competition."

In the Jan. 1-Aug. 31 span this year, three studios surpassed a gross of $1 billion at the international boxoffice, each individually reaching the goal in record time.

By the end of August, Buena Vista International, the offshore distribution arm of the Walt Disney Co., lead the parade with $1.49 billion, followed by 20th Century Fox International with $1.28 billion and Sony with $1.01 billion.

By contrast, by the Aug. 31 cutoff in 2005, only two had made it to the industry's coveted $1 billion mark, with Fox topping the list with $1.37 billion and Warner Bros. Pictures International barely squeezing in with $1.03 billion. Warners went on take top honors for the full year with $1.89 billion.

The international market leader for four out the past five years and an eight-time $1 billion achiever, Warners settled for fourth place in this year's eight-month wrap-up, trailed by Universal ($650.2 million), Paramount ($357.6 million), DreamWorks ($272.8 million) and New Line International ($121.9 million).

Although an upbeat mood pervades the foreign sales community, vestiges of 2005's Year of the Slump are still evident. To some studios, the 2005 drop-off at the international boxoffice served as an early warning, bringing about major staff cutbacks and a re-examination of production policies.

Japan, which showed a 35% decline in film rentals last year, is says to be up about 13% at this time, but U.S. distribution executives say they notice a trend there favoring local product. "Every week four or five local films are among the top 10," Cripps says. "You never saw that five years ago. "(U.S.) breakout films still do well in Japan. But the medium film is hard to get off the ground."

Most noticeable so far this year has been the amazing performance of the tentpoles, most of which lacked critical approval but made up for that in overwhelming fan appreciation.

The first sign of a reinvigorated overseas market came as early as late March when Fox unleashed the CGI-animated "Ice Age: The Meltdown," which went on to unfreeze $450.3 million overseas. Fox followed shortly thereafter with "X-Men: The Last Stand," which has $207.3 million on hand to date, with China and Japan still in the wings.

"We did the right thing going out so early (with 'Meltdown') and scheduling it for the Easter holiday season," says Paul Hanneman, co-president of Fox International, which has crossed the $1 billion mark six times. "We wanted to be the first of many CGI animated films set for release this year. And we had a track record of releasing big films one after another." In 2005, Fox had a successful run from mid-May through June with "Kingdom of Heaven," "Star Wars: Episode III -- Revenge of the Sith" and "Mr. & Mrs. Smith."

Fox contenders for the year-end season include the family fantasy "Eragon"; family comedies "A Night at the Museum" and "Deck the Halls"; "A Good Year," the Ridley Scott drama starring Russell Crowe; and the Sacha Baron Cohen spoof, "Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazahkstan."

Market leader BVI, never shy in trumpeting boxoffice records -- it has passed the $1 billion benchmark for what seems an unapproachable 12 years in a row -- kept it quiet when it crossed the line on the weekend of July 16. Industry sources say Disney management wanted to downplay boxoffice success at a time it pink-slipped about 650 employees in its film division.

On a rebound from the blockbuster-free summer 2005, BVI guided "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest" to a remarkable $556 million, the company's greatest overseas triumph. BVI executives believe that the Disney-Jerry Bruckheimer production, which has dominated the foreign market for eight weeks in a row, has a chance of reaching $600 million based on its playability through this month and early next month -- it opens in Italy on Sept. 15. BVI had a fast start at the beginning of this year as "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" spilled over from 2005 for a 2006 take of $250 million and an international cume of more than $457 million. Pixar's CGI-animated "Cars" drove in during the summer and collected about $160 million to date.

"This is far and away the biggest summer we've ever had," BVI executive vp distribution and acquisitions Anthony Marcoly says. "And we have two real guns left (for the fall and year-end period)." The "guns" include "The Guardian," directed by Andrew Davis and starring Kevin Costner and Ashton Kutcher, and the Tony Scott thriller "Deja Vu" from Bruckheimer.

As SPRI topped the $1 billion mark for a sixth time and a fifth time in the past seven years, distribution chief Zucker is predicting a record year for the company. Sony's early locomotive was the controversial religious mystery "The Da Vinci Code," which surprised the industry and the world with a whopping overseas boxoffice take of $535.5 million.

"The big pictures are bigger than ever," Zucker says. And SPRI is waving "big" flags as it readies its year-end releases -- "Casino Royale," its first James Bond offering since picking up the franchise following MGM's acquisition by a consortium that includes Sony Corp., and "Open Season," the first feature from Sony Pictures Animation.

Warners had its tentpoles, but "Superman Returns" ($179 million) and "Poseidon" ($121 million), just didn't do the kind business expected of megabuck productions. And the company's hopeful summer entry, M. Night Shyamalan's "Lady in the Water," turned into a dry well.

But Warner Bros. International, the only company ever to have surpassed $2 billion (2004) at the overseas boxoffice, is known to retrieve its laurels. Its year-end spurt is in the hands of the Leonardo DiCaprio starrer "The Departed," Clint Eastwood's "Flags of Our Fathers," Christopher Nolan's "The Departed" and George Miller's "Happy Feet."

For the Jan. 1-Aug. 31 boxoffice compilation, Paramount and DreamWorks are listed separately. UIP's Cripps, who becomes Paramount's international president at the beginning of next year when Universal and Paramount split into separate foreign sales companies, notes that "Paramount acquired DreamWorks in January and as such all films beginning with 'Over the Hedge' officially count as Paramount."

Universal ($650.2 million in the eight-month period) made a significant advance over last year's $288.5 million, largely because of "King Kong's" early take of $115.7 million (total cume: $331.1 million) and "Inside Man's" $95.3 million.