By December 9, the six US majors - Twentieth Century Fox, Universal Pictures, Paramount Pictures, Warner Bros, Sony and Walt Disney Studios - had recorded a total box office of more than $8.6bn in the international marketplace, surpassing their combined international gross for the whole of 2006 ($8.5bn).

Last year saw record revenues for the majors and with the closing weeks of this year still to see the international openings of Universal's Charlie Wilson's War and Disney's National Treasure sequel, the studios could notch up 15% growth to $9.8bn in 2007 from cinemas outside North America.

The caveat, of course, is the weak US currency which would reduce that growth to around 10% in real terms. In the past six months alone, the dollar has declined 9% on the euro and 4% against the British pound.

Back at ShoWest in March, John Fithian, the president of the National Association of Theater Owners, predicted the summer slate of film releases would pave the way for unprecedented growth in cinema attendance in North America.

He pointed to a line-up brimming with proven hits, including the latest instalments of Harry Potter, Shrek, Die Hard and a bunch of marauding Pirates.

What occurred in North America, as in the international market, was a series of films that debuted to staggering business often abetted by simultaneous worldwide openings.

On May 1, Spider-Man 3 was the first ever simultaneous launch in every primary and secondary market on the globe.

The film set an opening weekend record of $176.8m from 75 territories. Then the titles came thick and fast, and the rapacious nature of this year's schedule resulted in faster play-off than had been anticipated as each incoming movie behemoth pushed out the prior release.

The expansion that had been envisioned in the domestic marketplace has proved unsustainable and North America's box office is now expected to increase less than 4% to $9.6bn in 2007 with actual admissions at best equal to 2006's tally of $1.5bn.

Internationally, in individual territories, the situation seems a little bleaker. As of December 10, total box-office revenues had declined 3.5% from 2006 in 71 territories (see chart, p8).

Germany, France and South Korea have experienced double-digit declines while business in Brazil, Japan and the UK is essentially flat. The exceptions to the trend are the growing markets, including China, Russia and India.

Repeat business

The major territories welcomed back a gallery of familiar faces this year, whether it was a new chapter of Taxi in France or an adaptation of the popular television series O Homem Que Desafiou O Diabo in Brazil.

In Japan, such venerable animated characters as Pokemon and M were revisited and the country's top local grosser Hero, with revenues of $75m, was a courtroom thriller derived from a hit TV series.

India's box-office champ, Om Shanti Om, told a familiar story of love triumphing against the odds that featured cameos from virtually every Bollywood star. And Korea's D-War seemed to be walking in the footsteps of the previous year's box-office champ, The Host.

It is not that any one of these films failed to do well. But with rare exceptions, they did not do as well as earlier editions.

And with the majority costing more to produce and talent demanding a greater slice of revenues, profit margins are shrinking.

For example, in 2002, The Bourne Identity was reportedly made on a budget of $60m.

Fast-forward five years and the budget for the third instalment, The Bourne Ultimatum, had ballooned to an apparent $130m, with profit-participation deals likely rising accordingly.

Of the 10 highest-grossing films of the year internationally, only Ratatouille was neither a sequel nor adapted from an already proven hit from another medium. Historically, major box-office records are broken in years dominated by original material. But that truism is falling on deaf ears regardless of the language being spoken.

The genuine successes proved to be the trend-setters. Babel, initially opening in late 2006, grossed more than $140m theatrically worldwide, with its three narrative arcs (set in Morocco, Mexico, Japan and the US) allowing for internationalism in theme and participation.

Another success was Frank Oz's UK comedy Death At A Funeral. Comedies of every stripe have long been considered the least exportable of a country's film output but this modestly budgeted film ($9m) has thumbed its nose at conventional wisdom and grossed more than $26m to date internationally.

While it played as a niche title in most territories, it expanded nationwide in Australia, where it has grossed more than $10m; in Italy it has taken more than $3.5m and in Spain, $3m.

Still, there is no getting away from entrenched language barriers.

The instances where a non-English-language film has played significantly away from home turf are diminishing. Oscar exposure worked wonders for Germany's The Lives Of Others and Spain's Pan's Labyrinth but Algeria's Days Of Glory and Denmark's After The Wedding could claim no more than marginally elevated interest.

The Lives Of Others eventually went on to gross $65m worldwide, including $11m in France and $6.5m in Spain. Pan's Labyrinth notched up $49m worldwide, including a surprisingly strong $4.1m in South Korea.

One foreign-language film that has succeeded on the international stage is La Vie En Rose, which has grossed more than $75m internationally, as well as scoring big returns in CD sales. And as a genre, it would appear musicals have not yet been wrung dry - a worldwide audience used to hearing English-language songs has embraced Hairspray, and in distribution, Irish festival hit Once.

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