With a quarter of a billion dollars already in its pocket from a week of ticket sales, the Marvel superhero mash-up"The Avengers"is poised to join Hollywood's most elite club — the brotherhood of billion-dollar box office movies.
Unlike its cousins, though, "The Avengers" took a different path to the clubhouse. It opened first overseas, with splashy red-carpet premieres in Rome, Beijing, London and Moscow, where audiences have embraced the special-effects-driven action and adventure film.
By opening early abroad, movies like the Disney release "The Avengers" build box office momentum from their most avid audiences — foreign moviegoers who love spectacular action sequences on the big screen.
American movies, always popular internationally, today earn far more money abroad than at home — up to 70% of their overall take, and rising. Between 2007 and 2011, ticket sales overseas grew 35%, while domestic grosses increased only 6%.
Five years ago, an overseas-first debut would have been unthinkable. Movies always debuted on the same date around the world, or first in the U.S. But now, studios with certain movies are putting foreign theaters first and making U.S. audiences wait.
For "The Avengers," which opens here this weekend, the gambit is working. The film, whose A-list stars include Robert Downey Jr.and Scarlett Johansson, centers around an international peace-keeping crew of Iron Man, the Incredible Hulk, Thor, Captain America, Hawkeye and Black Widow. It had a 93% fresh rating from the online review aggregate Rotten Tomatoes.
"The fact that it has done so well overseas has everyone already speculating over just how successful it's going to be," said Peter Adee, who has worked in marketing and distribution at Relativity Media, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and Universal. "The question 'Is it going to be successful?' is gone from the conversation before it even debuts in the U.S."
The movie is projected to open in the U.S. and Canada to at least $150 million in ticket sales — among the top five biggest openings of all time. (The top dog is "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2," with its $169.2-million debut.)
By weekend's end, the movie, which cost an estimated $220 million to produce, may have close to $600 million worldwide. In just eight days of release, "Avengers" has collected more than the total international take of "Captain America,""Iron Man"and"Thor."
When its run is over, "The Avengers" is likely to stand with "Avatar,""Titanic"and iterations of "Harry Potter," "Star Wars," "Pirates of the Caribbean," "Lord of the Rings,""Toy Story" and"Transformers," as one of a new breed of globally dominant film franchises.
The powerful box-office figures are also the locomotive that is expected to pull a long train of profitable spin-off products, including DVDs, soundtracks and licensed merchandise, as well as sales of the movie to international broadcast and cable TV, and services like Hulu and Netflix. Its characters may one day populate a long-rumored Disney-Marvel theme park attraction.
"The Avengers" isn't the first to premiere internationally before it hits domestic shores. Universal Pictures' big-budget action picture "Battleship," which has generated a high level of skepticism in the U.S. because of its board game origins, has already racked up a respectable $170 million overseas in advance of its domestic debut May 18.
Warner Bros.opened its sequel"Journey 2: The Mysterious Island"abroad three weeks before it hit theaters stateside in February. The film ultimately grossed $221 million of its $323 million take outside the U.S.
Some in Hollywood have suggested a similar strategy would have benefited Disney's March flop"John Carter,"which was better received in foreign countries than it was in the U.S. But the movie's $270-million global take was so weak that Disney had to take a $200-million write-off on its cost.
Disney decided to release "The Avengers" overseas first in part because the summer ahead is crowded with sporting events — the Olympics and Euro Cup soccer — thought likely to keep audiences out of movie theaters. It chose the May Day holiday because it's a day off for many European students and workers.
But Disney also wanted to create positive "evangelism" about the film in America, said Dave Hollis, the studio's executive vice president of distribution.
"A big international gross signals 'Hey, this is a big, big movie' — it's not something that's just for fans, it's for everyone," Hollis said.
So far, the picture has performed best in Britain and Mexico, but is likely to be huge in both China and Russia, where movies with big special effects have traditionally been popular and where language is not the barrier it might be with, say, a romantic comedy.
"If it's a big blockbuster film that's easily digestible, it's going to work internationally," said Craig Dehmel, senior vice president of sales and strategic planning for Fox International, which did well with an overseas-first release of its animated"Rio."
Times staff writer Ben Fritz contributed to this report.