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International Box Office Analysis: Summer Heat Belongs to Hollywood

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After a few pandemic-addled years, the global box office is finally ready to feel the warmth of the studios’ tentpole releases.

Though the swing-back to pre-pandemic release schedules is happening at different speeds in each market, the quartet of “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3,” “Fast X,” “The Little Mermaid” and “Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse” — not to mention “The Super Mario Bros Movie” before them — have announced the arrival of Hollywood’s version of summer across much of the planet.

France saw admissions climb by 33% in the first five months of 2023, compared with the equivalent period last year, according to data from the CNC (National Film Board). Compared with an average figure for 2017 to 2019, the performance of the 2023 box office is (only) 12% behind. France’s recovery has been powered by a string of successful local films including “Asterix and Obelix: The Middle Kingdom,” “Alibi.com 2,” “The Three Musketeers: D’Artagnan,” “The Crime Is Mine” and Cannes opener “Jeanne du Barry.”

Over in the U.K. and Ireland, where fewer local films have been big hits, the box office is moving at a slower pace. May’s admissions were worth $98 million, some 19% below 2022. And the first five months were 1% down versus 2022, according to Comscore.

Among the key Asian territories, China, Japan and Korea are all performing better than last year.

The year-to-date theatrical total in China, just shy of $3.2 billion, is 46% ahead when compared with a sickly 2022, according to consultancy firm Artisan Gateway. That comes in 19% below the running total at the same point in 2019.

Yet the outlook in the world’s second largest market remains ambiguous. After a long hiatus that had as much to do with geopolitical considerations as it did with disease control, Hollywood movies are now releasing in China at pre-pandemic regularity, and — crucially — those release dates are being coordinated with those in North America and international markets.

But, interestingly, the performances of Hollywood movies in China are significantly weaker than in the pre-pandemic era. Imported films this year have achieved only a 21% market share, and much of that was accrued by Japanese anime titles.

Chinese authorities must soon weigh up a decision of whether to renew the country’s traditional ‘national film support month’ (otherwise referred to as the ‘summer blackout period’) that usually runs from mid-July till mid-August. If Hollywood is a diminished competitive threat, there’s less reason to protect Chinese-language films, and an uninterrupted flow of Hollywood tentpoles would likely provide beaten-up Chinese exhibitors further help with their recovery.

The release of “Transformers: Rise of the Beasts” later this week (June 9) is shaping up to be an important case study. Along with the “Fast” franchise, the “Transformers” film series has been previously tailored for Chinese audiences and has enjoyed huge success (“Age of Extinction“ in 2014 grossed $280 million). But the latest instalment could land between a rock and a hard place: too big a splash in China could scare regulators, while a lacklustre B.O. performance may raise difficult questions in Burbank.

Elsewhere, Japan, the world’s third biggest box office market, has enjoyed one of the strongest recoveries of all. 2022 was less than 10% below pre-pandemic averages, according to Gower Street Analytics. This year, too, the market seems responsive to a mix of strong local and international releases with “The Super Mario Bros. Movie” taking the shortest ever time for a non-Japanese animation film to reach the symbolic JPY10 billion ($71 million) milestone. Japanese title “Castle in the Sky” took in $6.02 million in its second weekend for a global cumulative of $12.8 million. Meanwhile, the supposedly final film by Miyazaki Hayao, “How Do You Live,” is set for a big mid-July outing – albeit without any publicity.

Korea, previously the world’s fourth largest theatrical market, has struggled to bring audiences back into cinemas. But after a much-improved May, the country’s own summer season may mark a return to form.

Traditionally, Korean cinemas go long on horror and other genre titles in summer. The thinking is that scary movies help audiences work up a cold sweat, chill off and earn a relief from the intense summer heat.

The season has started well with local crime actioner “The Roundup: No Way Out” earning $42 million from more than 5.6 million admissions in six days of release (plus previews). The same thing happened at the same point last year, with the previous “Roundup” instalment, before things tapered off again until “Avatar 2,” proving that these are still anxious times.

Comscore analysis suggests that the international summer has started strongly. “The Super Mario Bros Movie” last weekend took its ex-domestic score to $734 million. Including its North American results, the movie has overtaken “Frozen” to become the second biggest animated film of all-time worldwide with a cumulative $1.30 billion.

The analysis firm also described the $209 million global first weekend of “Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse” as “astounding.” Its international takings of $88.1 million was 2.8 times better than “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” in like international markets, excluding China. “The film’s launch abroad is 59% bigger than ‘Sonic The Hedgehog 2’ and 40% ahead of ‘The Little Mermaid’ for the same group of markets,” said Comscore senior analyst Paul Dergarabedian. “Audiences came out in force in Europe to ring up $30.5 million, triple the first instalment.”

The U.K. took in $11.5 million, followed by France with $3.7 million, Italy ($2.7 million), Spain ($2.5 million) and Germany ($2.1 million).

All of this isn’t to say that counter-programming against the mainstream can’t work: Just look at “John Farnham: Finding the Voice” in Australia. With $3.01 million after three weeks, it’s already the best performing Australian documentary feature of all time.

But if other local films can’t take up the running, there’s a powerhouse slate of Hollywood films — among them “The Flash,” “Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny,” “Oppenheimer,” “Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One,” “Barbie” and “Expendables 4” — set for the summer to keep international exhibitors busy.



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