Don’t Call ‘Cloud Atlas’ a Box-Office Flop Just Yet

Analysis: "Cloud Atlas" had a lame opening in the U.S., but producers believe it will do three times its domestic box office overseas

"Cloud Atlas," with an estimated price tag of $100 million, is among the most expensive independently-financed movies ever made. So its underwhelming opening weekend at the U.S. box office — it made just $9.6 million in 2,008 theaters — is no doubt sending ripples of anxiety through its backers.

But "Cloud Atlas" should still reach profitability if it can finish its North American run with about $30 million. How does that math work? Think foreign box office.

Producers believe it will do about three times better at foreign cinemas than it will in the United States. And that's been their strategy all along, or at least since the funding for the film came together.     

“This film doesn’t fit in a box,” said DDA Consulting’s Dennis Davidson, who represents several of the film’s producers, including writer-directors Andy and Lana Wachowski and Tom Tykwer, Grant Hill, Steven Arndt and several foreign stakeholders. “That can be a positive and a negative. But it is intelligent, complicated and nuanced, and all of that resonated with our foreign investors, and they believe it will resonate in their countries.” he told TheWrap.

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More than half of the film's backing comes from abroad. Warner Bros. put up just $20 million and is handling marketing and distribution in the U.S. and in the U.K., Japan, Australia, France and Spain. About 25 percent of the budget came from Asia and another 25 percent from Germany, with most of the balance coming from the selling of foreign distribution rights by Focus Films.

The film’s subject matter — through six interwoven tales it attempts to show how the actions of individual lives impact one another in the past, present and future — and its source material (David Mitchell’s 2004 novel) has heightened its international appeal.

“The fact that the much of the book is set in Asia, and the film’s sensibilities definitely helped foreign investors to spark to it,” Davidson said. “They’re very anxious to show this film in their home countries, and this has a lot to do with how we’ll roll it out overseas.“

"Cloud Atlas” will debut internationally on 1,500 screens in Russia on Nov. 8. That’s a lot of screens for that market, reflecting the confidence of the distributors, said Davidson, who represents Russia’s A-Company. Germany, where X-Verleigh was a major investor, will be the next to see “Cloud Atlas,” which will go out on 750 screens on Nov. 15.

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Each distributor has, to a degree, been able to pick its spot in their respective markets. It will be on screens for the Christmas holidays in Mexico and Latin America. China, where “Cloud Atlas” will debut around the Chinese New Year in February, will be one of the most important territories. The film’s foreign rollout will culminate in March of next year with some of Warner Bros.’ territories: the U.K., France and Japan.

“Everyone associated with this project is well aware of how important foreign will be to its success,” Davidson said, noting that the filmmakers and cast members will be globetrotting for the rollouts. Tom Hanks and Halle Berry top the ethnic- and race-bending ensemble that plays multiple roles. It’s an international cast. In addition to Susan Sarandon, the co-stars include Brits Jim Broadbent and Hugh Grant, Hugo Weaving is British and Australian, Doona Bay is Korean and Zun Zhou is Chinese.

“It always had a few built-in factors working against it, making it a tough sell to American audiences," Jeff Bock, Exhibitor Relations senior analyst, told TheWrap. "It’s R-rated, doesn’t have a traditional narrative… and has a plump running time of 2 hours and 45 minutes."

There's no guarantee that "Cloud Atlas" will connect to a greater degree overseas, but Bock thinks it will.

"Challenging films with non-traditional narratives are more widely accepted, and Tom Hanks is still a huge draw," he said. "Imax will certainly help, as international audiences will be impressed with the spectacle, and let’s face it, more in touch with the aura of spirituality that 'Cloud Atlas' possesses."

It's clear "Cloud Atlas" isn't "The Matrix," the 1999 sci-fi saga that launched the $1.6 billion franchise for the Wachowskis and Warner Bros. The original film cost $63 million to make and brought in $171 domestically and $463 million worldwide.

And while it's hard to find films that directly compare to the opening of "Cloud Atlas," 2007’s “The Golden Compass” might offer some perspective.

It was a sprawling, epic adventure based on a best-selling novel and starred Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig. Its budget was $185 million and after topping out at $77 million it was considered a bust in North America. But it made $300 million overseas.