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More films seek fortunes abroad before hitting U.S.

Why American films like ”Battleship” and ”The Avengers” opened overseas

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Battleship sure has taken its time reaching U.S. shores. By its May 18 opening, the $200 million-budgeted alien-invasion flick will have played in some countries for as long as 37 days. More than 60 foreign territories have already seen it, and it’s grossed over $215 million before a single American moviegoer has spent a dime.

Battleship isn’t alone. Foreign audiences got to watch The Avengers nine days before we did, and several high-profile summer films — Prometheus, G.I. Joe: Retaliation, and Ice Age: Continental Drift — are scheduled to premiere overseas first. Such a release pattern would have been unheard of just a few years ago. So what’s changed?

America is still by far the biggest filmgoing market, but we’re a shrinking piece of the global puzzle. ”Foreign moviegoers are loving these blockbuster films,” says Exhibitor Relations analyst Jeff Bock, ”and we just can’t match them in terms of ticket sales anymore.” In 2000, the U.S. and Canada represented roughly half of the worldwide box office. By 2011, that slice had shrunk to 31 percent. ”The international marketplace is such a big driver now,” says Veronika Kwan Vandenberg, Warner Bros.’ president of international distribution, ”and we want what’s best for a movie globally.” That even means taking into consideration foreign holidays and sporting events. Disney, for instance, debuted The Avengers in Europe on April 25 to take advantage of the four-day May Day holiday weekend. And in the case of Battleship, Universal wanted to distance itself from June’s Euro 2012 soccer tournament. ”April was simply a better fit for us internationally than May 18,” says Universal distribution president Nikki Rocco.

One added benefit of opening abroad first is that it can stir up excitement ahead of a film’s domestic release. ”Battleship was initially harboring negative buzz,” says Bock. ”But if you release it overseas and it does $200 million, you get rid of some of that negativity.” Too bad John Carter can’t get an overseas redo.