Despite a disappointing first quarter, international markets are proving surprisingly resilient to the economic downturn.

The good news first: the recession may have dominated headlines in the first quarter of 2009, but it has not scared away cinema-goers in North America. Domestic box-office gross for January 1-April 5 was $2.6bn, up 9.6% from 2008’s $2.4bn. Attendance was also up by almost 8% to 357.6 million admissions (from 331.4 million).

Things were not quite as sunny overseas — the studios have projected first-quarter international box office of $2bn, down approximately 14% from $2.4bn in the same period of 2008. But that is not as bad as it sounds — much of the drop can be attributed to currency fluctuations. For example, sterling stood at $1.98 to the pound on March 1, 2008; a year later it was at $1.43.

“Movie-going has proven recession resistant in the majority of the international markets, with many territories seeing improvements over last year’s record-setting pace”

David Kornblum, Walt Disney SMPI

Another factor is Easter, which fell on March 23 in 2008 meaning school holiday-timed releases were slated in the first quarter; this year Easter was much later on April 12.

The rest of the year should make up for the dip, as April’s releases have shown already. Quarter two is typically the strongest of the year, and 2009 has a robust line-up of blockbusters (currently six day-and-date launches are scheduled). Universal Pictures International is proof of how much one month can change things. Its first-quarter international tally ($161m) is 34% below 2008 and 9% below 2007. However, the year-to-date box office is tracking 20% ahead of 2008 and 15% ahead of 2007, following an April 3 launch for the year’s most lucrative international hit so far, Fast & Furious.

Although down from last year’s first quarter internationally, Warner Bros Pictures International (WBPI) leads in international box-office market share, followed by 20th Century Fox. Wbpi’s tally is $485m. Its strongest performers are The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button, Yes Man and Gran Torino, which has crossed $100m internationally.

Local hits have driven gains in key markets. Swedish admissions were up 17% on 2008 thanks to local hit The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (known locally as Men Who Hate Women), which also helped spur 3% growth in Denmark. Brazil was up around 29% thanks to local hit If I Were You 2, which has grossed more than $21m.

Other key European markets have fared less well, with Germany (-5%), Spain (-11%) and Italy (-3.2%) all down (see table). France was down 17% in the first quarter, although 2008 had been propelled by the phenomenal success of Dany Boon’s comedy Welcome To The Sticks; the second quarter is looking brighter thanks to the comedy, Coco.

Bucking the downward trend was the UK which was up 16% to $365m (£250.8m). Top performers included Marley & Me, Bolt and Slumdog Millionaire, which became Pathé Distribution’s biggest (and last) hit in the market, grossing more than $31m.

“Movie-going has proven recession resistant in the majority of the international markets, with many territories seeing improvements over last year’s record-setting pace,” says David Kornblum, vice-president of international theatrical distribution at Walt Disney SMPI.

The second quarter of 2009 should continue this trend as many high-profile titles open. May releases include X-Men Origins: Wolverine (Fox), Star Trek (Paramount), Angels & Demons (Sony), Night At The Museum 2 (Fox) and Terminator Salvation (Warner Bros). The unknown factor is swine flu, which is affecting Wolverine’s release in Mexico after cinemas were closed.

First-quarter box office

2009 Q1          % chg vs

Gross   2008 Q1

North America $2.6bn 9.6%

UK      $365m 16%

Germany         $280m*       -5%

Italy      $184m -3.2%

Spain    $160m -11%

France  $309m       -17%

All figures based on local currency rates


North America

2009 Q1          2008 Q1

357.6m            331.42m

Source: Exhibitor Relations