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‘Star Trek Into Darkness’ Heading Where None Has Gone Before: Foreign Profitability

With focus groups, casting, talent barnstorms and carefully timed openings, Paramount has worked hard to make this the first "Star Trek" movie to score big overseas

Ditch Spock’s ears. Lose the wacky costumes. Don't have characters spend so much time yakking on the bridge of the Enterprise.

That’s the sort of advice Paramount is heeding as it prepares to open its sci-fi epic “Star Trek Into Darkness” on Thursday in the U.K., Australia and five other countries. Determined to make its sci-fi epic sequel a global hit — unlike any of the preceding “Star Trek” movies — the studio has gone to great lengths to make it more appealing to foreign audiences.

“I guess less Trekkie, more action might be the short story,” Paramount’s head of international distribution Anthony Marcoly told TheWrap Tuesday. “But since I arrived here 18 months ago, a primary part of my mission has been to make sure this movie succeeds at the overseas box office the way it will domestically, and our team has done a great deal to make sure that happens.” 

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The film opens in the United States in Imax theaters on Wednesday, May 15, and wide a day later. Pre-release projections show it debuting north of $90 million domestically.

Extensive research, marketing tailored to individual markets, casting designed to resonate with international audiences and extensive ground campaigns by the movie’s creators and talent like Chris Pine have all preceded the international debut. Over the past couple of months, director J.J. Abrams and producer Bryan Burk have barnstormed through Asia, Europe and Latin America, screening extensive clips.

“We did a lot of focus groups in a lot of countries, and asked what they liked and didn’t like and we listened,” Marcoly said. “Basically, it was more action, more of the adventure elements and less of the real Trekkie stuff.” The stuff, in other words, that turned the 1960s TV show into a cultural phenomenon in America and launched the film franchise.

Paramount didn’t have much choice. With a $195 million production budget, Abrams’ follow-up to his 2009 “Star Trek” reboot will have to score big overseas to be a success. And that’s a feat none of the previous films – including the last one – have been able to achieve.

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Since “Star Trek: The Motion Picture" launched the film franchise back in 1979, the 11 movies in the series have taken in more than $1.8 billion, but just $312 million from abroad. Indeed, the franchise’s appeal and cast of characters was seen as so U.S.-centric, that Paramount didn’t bother to release several of the earlier films abroad.

The 2009 “Star Trek” easily became the franchise’s biggest box office hit by taking in $387 million worldwide, but didn’t make much of a dent in the overseas market with just $128 million. That’s not terrible, but it meant foreign accounted for less than a third of the total grosses. That won’t cut it in today’s box office world, where pricey tent poles often double their domestic hauls overseas.

Warner Bros. faced  the same sort of challenge last year with “Dark Knight Rises,” since the similarly all-American Batman franchise had never been able to match its domestic popularity at the foreign box office.

The studio went out of its way to reverse that trend, but may have benefited most from the explosive growth in the number foreign theaters and the emergence of markets like China, Russia and Mexico. “Dark Knight Rises” was the first Batman movie to make more abroad than in the U.S. ($636 million to $448 million) on its way to $1.08 billion globally.

“Into Darkness” should be the first of the “Star Trek” movies to pull that off, according to Exhibitor Relations vice-president and senior analyst Jeff Bock.

“With the last movie, I think they essentially launched a whole new franchise,” he told TheWrap. “Most of the people who will be seeing this film will know who Chris Pine is, and have no idea who William Shatner is.”

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“Into Darkness” was shot in 3D, and with the proliferation of those theaters abroad and foreign audiences’ fascination with the format, that should further pump up the box office.

In addition to its marketing efforts, Paramount has stacked the deck in its favor with its overseas release schedule. The seven markets that it opens in this week were the seven in which “Star Trek” did the best at the box office. The U.K. was the best of those, with the film taking in $35 million over the course of its run there, a reality not lost on Paramount.

The worldwide premiere of the “Into Darkness” was held in London last week (photo at top) and popular British actor Benedict Cumberbatch (right) is the villain in the film. That’s by design, and Marcoly said he expects the U.K. to be the most lucrative foreign market for the film.

“Into Darkness” will add around 25 markets the following week on, but has staggered several of the others. It will open in China later this month – none of the other films have played there — and in Japan in August.

“That gives us more time to promote and hopefully we’ll be building on the momentum from the U.S. and the strongest foreign markets,” Marcoly said.

The last “Star Trek” movie took in just over $19 million from openings in the same seven markets that “Into Darkness” debuts in this week. Another sci-fi epic, Ridley Scott‘s “Prometheus,” brought in around $25 million from the same group last year, and Marcoly said he’d like to see this weekend’s total land between those – or do even better.

“I like our odds,” he said.