The fact that most international audiences saw Rio a week before domestic shows how the North American release is losing its power in dictating the success of film.
There’s a sea change afoot in the business of releasing studio movies around the world, and I don’t mean the shortening of windows, although that in itself is loaded with significance.
No I am referring to the fact that 20th Century Fox International opened its animated movie Rio last weekend in 55 territories before its North American opening this weekend. It’s not unprecedented that studios go out with a major picture in international territories before domestic, but for several reasons it has never been the business tradition. Chief among those reasons is the fact that the international exhibition community wanted to see how a film would play in the domestic market before coming to their own conclusions about booking it into theatres in their markets.
When I was in my teens, the gap between a US release and international could be as much as six months. ET – The Extra-Terrestrial was a summer sensation in North America but only released in the UK in December 1982, for example.
Everything has changed since then, of course, not least of which is the piracy problem that could plague a family title like Rio.
But for Fox to put out a major release like this, which is not a sequel and has no existing awareness outside the studio marketing campaign is a sign that the North American market is losing some of its power as a bellwether. For the film to gross a staggering $55m in 72 countries in advance of school holidays in much of the world is an even greater indication that distributors and exhibitors around the world are less dependent on that US release than they have ever been.
Among the opening weekend numbers - $10.4m in Russia, $8.3m in Brazil (a key market for this film, for obvious reasons), $5.3m in Mexico. Fox was obviously confident enough in the film to make such a bold release decision, and the film delivers to the family audience in spades. This release pattern wouldn’t work on every title and in many cases that advance word from the US still helps to stoke up international enthusiasm, especially on smaller titles which need to build word of mouth from the ground up. UK locomotives like The King’s Speech and Four Weddings have even benefited from their US-first release when they arrived in the UK.
But many independent films of a certain size can be damaged by the reactive traditions of the exhibition community which will often look to the US release as a signal of how a film will play overseas. That response – if the film bombs in the US - will often mean a film is dead on arrival before it has a chance to play in foreign markets. Independents and studios alike can’t prevent negative press seeping into international territories if a film has failed to work domestically, but they can give it their best shot in terms of P&A commitment.
In any case, the Rio example shows that films could now have a better chance at global success without the domestic release dictating the terms.