Why did Universal Pictures International (UPI) roll out one of the major summer tentpoles in most of the world five weeks before the US opening?

It’s not so unusual for the studios to release their films in a couple of international territories before the North American launch. Russia routinely gets animated fare a week before domestic to ward off piracy, the UK might have a week or two lead on a James Bond title and last year, Paramount and Sony put out Steven Spielberg’s The Adventures Of Tintin in international territories two months before the US – but that, of course, made sense since Tintin is an iconic European property with little US awareness.
So when Universal Pictures International opted to release Battleship in 26 territories on April 11 five weeks before domestic, it was a big deal for a number of reasons. First of all, it’s Universal’s biggest movie of the year and the studio has a lot riding on its success [the $200m+ 47 Ronin has now been moved to 2013]. Second, it’s a potential franchise-starter based on a Hasbro board game which aims to emulate the series success of Hasbro’s Transformers. And third, its US May 16 release date, two weeks after The Avengers and nine days before Men In Black 3, is one of the key early summer dates on the calendar.
Ten years ago, it would be unthinkable for any major studio to risk putting out a tentpole film of such significance overseas not just a week but five weeks before domestic. The studios’ LA marketing departments have traditionally preferred a domestic launch as a way of controlling every step of the release and banking that a successful US release would trigger big openings in international.
But for visionary Universal president of international David Kosse – and studio chairman Adam Fogelson – the decision was a straightforward one. When you’re spending tens of millions of dollars in both domestic and international markets on building a blockbuster spectacle like this, the domestic-first argument no longer holds.
“A film like Bridesmaids would never work internationally if it didn’t work domestically first,” Kosse told me this week. “That was a sleeper. But when you have a four-quadrant movie sold on spectacle like Battleship, you can change the dynamic. Memorial Day and July 4 weekend are not worldwide holidays and exhibitors know that it’s an FX-driven movie so they don’t need the guarantee of a US success.”
The April dating enabled UPI to hit certain key moviegoing periods like Golden Week in Japan and holidays in China and Korea, while steering well clear of the European Football Championships which run June 8 to July 1. It also gave Battleship the lead over the other early summer tentpoles, namely The Avengers, Prometheus and Men In Black 3.
It also broke up the talent travel schedule, allowing director Peter Berg and key actors to promote the film at a more leisurely pace in Asia and Europe before the domestic junkets. Traditionally, talent has a shorter window to cover too many worldwide bases on a day-and-date opening.
There is no evidence that the international-first opening has resulted in any piracy activity in the US, nor adversely affected expectations of a huge opening on May 16. After all, as Kosse points out, the domestic campaign for Battleship has been going all hands on deck since its Superbowl in February.
And the numbers? They’re great. In two weeks, Battleship has grossed $148m with Latin America, South Africa and Israel yet to open. Individual territory grosses include China ($22.2m), Russia ($14.1m), Korea ($13.5m), UK ($10.3m) and Japan ($10.3m).

Kosse estimates that between 30m and 40m people will have seen Battleship before the domestic opening – a notable achievement which already secures Battleship’s position in the summer tentpole top ranks. It could also lead other studios to experiment with alternative release patterns for some of their biggest titles. After all, if international audiences are more important to the success of these movies than domestic, why shouldn’t they see them first?