From ‘Iron Man 3’ to ‘The Hobbit 2,’ Foreign Box Office Rules

“The Hobbit 2” was the most dependent on overseas markets of last year’s top 10 grossers

IronMan3PieFor “Gravity,” “Iron Man 3”  and “Despicable Me 2,” the domestic box office is just gravy.

The biggest films of 2013 earned the bulk of their profits abroad with as much as 70 percent of their revenues coming from foreign countries. The ten highest grossing films last year each made more money overseas than they did stateside.

DespicableMe2PieSuperhero films, space action and fast cars cross cultural and geographic barriers, analysts say, because they rely on visual spectacle to attract a crowd and they frequently boast international casts.

“In the past these movies would have been packaged to look American,” Keely Gillman, president of consumer insights at Worldwide Motion Picture Group, said. “Now they play up the universality of the stories or the themes.”

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That broad appeal pushed international sales up by 3.35 percent to $24.7 billion compared to $23.9 billion the previous year, according to initial estimates by Rentrak. Final numbers won’t be known for more than a month, but foreign crowds are even moving some films from flops to minor fizzles.

HobbitPie“After Earth,” for instance, met with a cold shoulder from U.S. crowds, picking up $60.5 million domestically, but star Will Smith‘s popularity in other countries drove the box office to $243.8 million globally. Likewise, “Pacific Rim” only earned 24 percent of its $411 million gross stateside, while its monster movie theme made it a big hit with Asian markets.

“The foreign box office is providing a much needed cushion for some films,” Paul Dergarabedian,  senior media analyst at Rentrak, told TheWrap. “These films would have taken a beating otherwise.”

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thorpie-2A closer look at the films that worked in the United States and elsewhere is instructive. Of the top ten highest grossing films last year, “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug” was the most dependent on foreign crowds. Shooting the film in 3D and releasing it in dozens of major overseas markets simultaneously meant that 70 percent of “Smaug’s” $835.1 million take came from abroad. That percentage should increase when it opens in China and Japan next month.

FastandFuriousPieOther films that played especially well with foreign audiences included “Fast & Furious 6,” with its cast of prominent Latino actors, which picked up 69 percent of its $788.1 million worldwide gross in foreign territories, and the Marvel movies “Thor: The Dark World” and “Iron Man 3,” which earned  67.6 percent and 66.9 percent of their grosses overseas.

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HungerGamesPieThough last year’s most popular domestic release, “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire,” was not as big a hit with foreign audiences as these films, it saw substantial growth in overseas markets. The first film earned only 41 percent of its $691.2 million haul from the foreign box office, while its sequel grossed 51 percent of its $851.3 million gross overseas. Credit goes to markets such as Italy, South Korea, Germany, France and Mexico, where grosses were up more than 70 percent from the first film.

“Coming into ‘Catching Fire,’ we knew there was an enormous growth opportunity abroad,” Brad Kembel, executive vice president of international distribution at Lionsgate, told TheWrap, “Just as we saw with the ‘Twilight’ series there was a lot of lag time between the explosive sales domestically and the slower roll out in the rest of the world.”

Kembel said he expects that foreign markets will continue to play a bigger and bigger role in future “Hunger Games” installments. As these charts make clear, they’re already the biggest piece of the pie.