The central conceit of "The Smurfs 2" is that the wicked wizard Gargamel (Hank Azaria) is desperate to capture the secret essence of Smurfs. But Sony Pictures already has found the magic formula that makes the blue cartoon characters so popular — and it isn't found at the domestic box office.
Hollywood has been a global business for decades, but the film industry's international reach increasingly is being defined by animated and family-friendly movies, which continue to generate foreign revenues much bigger than any Smurf or Minion.
Some live-action films still do much better in foreign markets than in domestic venues. Sony's losses on the dud "After Earth," for example, will be mitigated by the film's overseas sales, which are more than double its domestic take of $60 million. But in recent years foreign moviegoers have flocked to animated works in even more lopsided proportions.
The first "Smurfs" movie, which like the sequel combines animation and live action, sold a solid $142.6 million of tickets domestically, but made a whopping $421.1 million beyond North America. The sequel, which opened Wednesday, is likely to follow an identical pattern.
Competing studios shared the same kind of disproportion: More than half of all tickets sold for Disney's "Monsters University" were purchased outside the United States. The sales were equally tilted for both of Universal's "Despicable Me" films, helping make the most recent film the most profitable release in Universal's history, NBC Universal Chief Executive Officer Steve Burke said Wednesday.
Two years ago, Paramount's "The Adventures of Tintin" did nearly 80% of its total business in foreign theaters ($296.4 million of its total gross of $374 million came from international theaters) and last summer Fox's "Ice Age: Continental Drift" did a staggering 82% of its business in overseas theaters, grossing $715.9 million — the most for any animated film ever — internationally.
Jordan Kerner, the producer of both "Smurfs" films, said Sony's initial estimate for the first movie was that it would roughly equal its domestic gross overseas. "And I said, 'If it doesn't do two and a half or three times its domestic gross overseas, I will shoot myself,'" Kerner said. "The Smurfs are universal."
In a marketplace crowded with animated movies where the DreamWorks Animated release "Turbo" bombed two weeks ago, the $110-million "The Smurfs 2" is not expected to do especially huge numbers domestically. Over its first three days of release, the sequel could sell about $25 million in tickets, well below the first film's debut of $35.6 million. That should put "The Smurfs 2," which attracted largely negative reviews, behind Denzel Washington and Mark Wahlberg's new crime tale "Two Guns," which is expected to take first place at the weekend box office.
"It's a much more crowded marketplace [than when the first film came out] and nothing gets a chance to breathe," Kerner said. "As a producer, that worries me."
The film's true path to profitability is thousands of miles away. Opening in more than 40 foreign markets, "The Smurfs 2" could gross more than $100 million worldwide this weekend. To bolster those returns, Sony executives have traveled the globe trying to drum up as many euros, British pounds and yen as possible.
In June, the studio brought 28 Smurf fans from around the world to Paris to celebrate the birthday of Smurf creator Pierre Culliford, known as Peyo (the Belgian artist died in 1992). On Sunday, the studio hosted 162 "blue carpet" premieres in 50 domestic markets and 60 cities overseas, including special screenings in such far-flung lands as Bulgaria, Estonia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia and Turkey.
"The great thing about the Smurfs is that no matter where you're from, you can sort of call them your own," said Raja Gosnell, who directed both Smurf movies. "The book started as French-language, so that was the world that they came from and there's two generations of Europeans that grew up reading those books. It's much deeper in the culture there and more of a generational love for it than there is in the U.S."
In the United States, animated and family films typically do extremely well with nonwhite audiences, and that tendency is repeated overseas. What's more, international patrons are more willing to pay extra for 3-D admissions than American audiences (Sony is almost hiding the fact that "The Smurfs 2" is available in the stereoscopic format domestically) and don't seem to care that "The Smurfs 2" is not well-reviewed.
Given the Belgian roots of the source material, it is not surprising that the returns for the first film were particularly outsized in Europe (although China was the film's top foreign market, with a gross of $39.4 million). In France, Germany, Italy, Spain and the United Kingdom, "The Smurfs" grossed a combined $119.7 million. Those numbers should be higher with the new film thanks to the sequel's setting in Paris, a late story switch from Las Vegas.
Sony and Kerner aren't counting their chickens before they are hatched, but both are working on a third Smurfs film and have penciled in a July 24, 2015, release date. Said Kerner: "We have a great script."
And it's set in Belgium.
Times staff writer Amy Kaufman contributed to this report.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times