'Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs' racking up record sales overseas

When they release a big action movie starring Will Smith, Hollywood's studio chieftains can be pretty confident that it will sell a lot of tickets in London, Hong Kong and Sydney as well as in the United States.

And they expect that a fast-moving adventure with an international setting -- think "Angels & Demons" -- will probably roll up bigger grosses in foreign markets than at home.

But the unprecedented overseas box-office success of the digitally animated adventures of a woolly mammoth, a wisecracking sloth and a saber-toothed squirrel has people throughout the film industry shaking their heads in wonder, and a bit of disbelief.

"Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs," the third installment of 20th Century Fox's movie series about prehistoric animals, has become an international phenomenon, earning more than $600 million in overseas ticket sales and becoming the most popular animated film ever abroad.

Also known in Hollywood as "Ice Age 3," the movie, which opened July 1 to decent business in the U.S. and Canada, has generated triple the box-office revenue in foreign markets and is increasing in appeal throughout Europe, Russia and Latin America even as domestic interest dwindles.

In some foreign countries, it is the biggest-grossing American film since 1997's "Titanic."

Though the outsize success of "Ice Age 3" puzzles many -- including the film's director, Carlos Saldanha, who says, "It's a phenomenon I cannot explain" -- there are discernible clues about why it has been an overseas hit.

And as Hollywood grows increasingly dependent on foreign sales, the movie's success is sure to be scrutinized for keys to the future. The international box office now accounts for about 60% of theatrical revenue and is crucial in determining a film's profitability.

"I never thought 'Ice Age' would do so well," said Bruce Nash, president of box-office research firm Nash Information Services. "In the U.S., 'Ice Age' has not been the franchise on the scale of the Pixar or "Shrek" movies. It's second tier, so its performance overseas came in under the radar a bit."

Nonetheless, those looking for reasons for the movie's success note that 40% of the box-office revenue has come from premium-priced theaters showing "Dawn of the Dinosaurs" in 3-D, a relatively new format for animation.

Also, the movie's family theme is playing particularly well in Latin America, and top local stars around the world hired to voice the characters tailored the jokes to their cultures. Finally, sequels tend to perform better overseas than domestically.

Cuteness factor

In Germany, Sid the sloth is voiced by one of the country's most popular comedians, Otto Waalkes, who has been plugging the movie nonstop on talk shows and onstage during his own stand-up routines, where he slips into his character from "Ice Age 3." The combination of Waalkes' wide appeal and his translation of comedic lines into more colloquial language is charming moviegoers in Germany.

"This kind of anarchist, irreverent humor plays extremely well in the German culture," said Vincent de La Tour, who runs Fox's Frankfurt office. "It's also the cuteness factor of the characters -- Germans love talking furry animals," he added, noting that "Dawn of the Dinosaurs" has become the biggest animated film in Germany, surpassing 1994's "The Lion King."

In Latin America, Fox released two versions, in Spanish and Portuguese, which were dubbed by popular telenovela actors and comedians including Carlos Espejel, Jesus Ochoa and Angelica Vale. It's also no wonder in such a family-centric part of the world why "Dawn of the Dinosaurs," whose story revolves around a closely knit herd of animals, is the region's most popular film in decades.

"At the end of the day, it's a story of a family," said Eduardo Echeverria, the executive who oversees Latin America for Fox. "And Latins are very family-oriented."

Echeverria said one of the reasons "Ice Age 3" has risen to "unprecedented heights" is that families and adults have seen the film two and three times -- a highly atypical pattern in Latin America.

"We're a poor region where parents usually take their families once to see a film," he said. "We haven't seen numbers like this since 'Titanic.' "

Differences in audience patterns between foreign and domestic markets also appear to be influencing the movie's mammoth overseas box-office performance. In the U.S., sequels usually attract a smaller audience than the original film. But the opposite is true for international markets.

" 'Ice Age' has brand-name recognition," said John Durie, founder of the European marketing firm Strategic Film Marketing. He said that in France, where movie tickets are expensive, "parents wanting to bring their kids to the cinema are going to go for a known quantity."

For Fox, the "Ice Age" movies have turned into a multibillion-dollar franchise, largely because of their popularity abroad.

"When a movie catches on, it has enormous, untapped potential in international markets because the population is 20 times what it is in the United States," said Jim Gianopulos, chairman of Fox Filmed Entertainment. "This film is not just a bunch of talking animals. It's appealing to a very broad audience because of its humor, pathos, emotion and continuation of the beloved characters."

With each of the two "Ice Age" sequels, the film series' overseas appeal has grown. International box-office sales accounted for 45% of the first movie's total ticket sales; the figure was 70% for the 2006 sequel and 75% for the current installment.

Modest origin

That's a coup for Blue Sky Studios, a onetime TV commercial production house that Fox acquired in 1997 as it was seeking to break into the digital animation business.

Blue Sky's movies, which also include 2005's "Robots" and last year's "Dr. Seuss' Horton Hears a Who!," have never won the critical accolades bestowed on Pixar Animation Studios and, at an earlier time, Walt Disney Co. The Greenwich, Conn., studio, which employs 330 people, also operates with lower overhead and production budgets -- typically about $100 million per picture -- than rivals'.

But with the global success of the "Ice Age" movies, such fine distinctions fade.

To date, "Dawn of the Dinosaurs" -- which cost about $100 million to make and another $100 million to market worldwide -- has brought in $602.5 million in ticket sales abroad, snatching the top overseas title from the 2003 Pixar comedy "Finding Nemo," which grossed $526.9 million.

Tomas Jegeus, co-president of Fox International, said the film was the biggest animated release ever in 28 foreign markets including Latin America and Russia. The film's biggest returns have come from Germany, France and Britain.

"Ice Age 3" is in a rare group; only eight other movies have ever crossed the $600-million threshold in international receipts.

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claudia.eller@latimes.com

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