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Why the Foreign Box Office Leads: ‘Fast Five,’ ‘Thor’ Open Overseas First

This year blockbuster films, including ”Rio,“ ”Thor“ and ”Fast Five“ are debuting abroad first, turning the traditional marketing machine on its head

From global finance to Olympic basketball, Pax Americana isn't what it used to be.

And the ebbing dominance of the United States now applies to the box office, too.

With the global box office spiking to an all-time revenue high of $21.2 billion (see MPAA chart for below for 2010) last year — as the domestic market stayed flat at $10.6 billion — the major U.S. studios are no longer dogmatically clinging to a traditional release paradigm in which the North American market gets served first, and Europe, Asia and Latin America get the movie sometime after that.

Already this year, three major tentpole releases — Fox's "Rio," Paramount/Marvel's "Thor" and Universal's "Fast Five" — have come to the U.S. after premiering abroad.

The foreign-first methodology once wsa applied to problem pictures facing bad reviews. The idea then was to start out somewher more friendly, where the dialog and storyline won't be so eviscerated upon impact, then have at least some buzz and money in your coffers when it comes time to face the music in the U.S.

But the macaw-themed kiddie film "Rio," which crossed the $100 million domestic marker in only its third weekend, is certainly no turkey.

And "Fast Five"? After a blow-out film junket and premiere in Rio de Janeiro, the film opened to $24 million at 957 locations spread across the UK, Australia, New Zealand and South Korea. This was a week before it debuted Stateside, with the film grossing $83.6 million in the U.S. and Canada this past weekend.

"People are recognizing that you have to take advantage of the (international) marketplace," said Disney worldwide theatrical president Chuck Viane. "In the past, people didn't do that."

"You started to see this kind of thing about a year and a half ago," added another studio distribution chief, who would not speak for attribution. Foreign staffs, he said, have more clout within the overall distribution ranks of the major studios.

And as such, they have a greater ability — and flexibility — to granularly target opportunities that exist in specific foreign markets.

"We have a seat at the table now, wheras before, international was totally beholden to domestic decisions," an international distribution president at another studio added.

Under traditional rules, Anzac Day on April 25 — Australia's equivelent to Memorial Day in the U.S. — might have proven to be missed opportunity for "Fast Five," which was debuting Stateside this past Friday (April 29) and "Thor," which is arriving in the U.S and Canada this coming Friday (May 6).

But not this year. Both Paramount and Universal seized what was a five-day box-office weekend Down Under, with "Fast Five" outgunning "Thor" $10.7 million to $5.8 million. (Marvel's Greek God-themed superhero franchise film came roaring back abroad this weekend, however, grossing $83 million dollars across 56 markets to lead the foreign box office.)

"It was a holiday in Australia, and it was the logical thing to do," noted Viane. "And I think people are comfortable when they have projects like these that fit a particular marketplace. Certainly, it had no affect on how these films will open here (in the U.S.).

By the time "Thor" hits U.S. screens on Friday, it will have grossed more than $100 million in global box office revenue.

Not that Paramount and Marvel have anything to worry about, since "Thor's" tracking is so solid. In an NRG survey conducted last week, 87 percent of males 25 and older reported awareness of the movie, with 62 percent indicating definite interest in seeing it and 19 percent listing the film as their first choice to see in theaters.

But in the unlikely event that the film does underperform Stateside, $100 million in the bank isn't bad immunity from the slings and arrows of bad box-office press.

"This has clearly worked for (Fox, Universal and Paramount)," said one distribution chief, "and anything that works, we're going to do a lot more of it until it doesn't."

According to an international distribution executive at a rival studio, the fact that so many studios are willing to go abroad first with big tentpoles speaks to ebbing fears about piracy.

"I think we've overcome that to some extent. It still is a huge problem, but we now have measures in place to hold off the threat," he said, noting that aggressive takedowns of peer-to-peer networks and other anti-piracy measures across the world have limited the impact of an individual in, say, Prague sneaking a camcorder into a theater.

Also driving the increasing clout of the international market: growth.

According to the MPAA, each of the three major regions outside the U.S. — segrated as Europe/Middle East/Africa, Latin America and Asia — have shown steady growth over the last five years. (See MPAA chart above.)

There's an understanding now that the international market has so much value," said the studio international distribution executive. "This isn't a new idea. But in many ways, it is new when you consider the old tradition of domestic always going first."