‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ plunders foreign markets

Americans appear to be growing tired of riding the high seas with Capt. Jack Sparrow, but “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides” found box office treasure anyway.

The fourth entry in the Johnny Depp-starring “Pirates” series raked in $256.3 million on its first weekend in more than 100 foreign countries, according to an estimate from Walt Disney Studios. That’s the biggest international debut of all time for a film.

It more than made up for a softer-than-expected $90.1-million launch in the U.S. and Canada. The total worldwide tally was a huge $346.4 million; the film enjoyed the all-time biggest openings in Latin America, the Middle East and Russia, according to Disney.

The disparity in performance demonstrates that in the increasingly global film business, movies can still be blockbuster hits while disappointing at the domestic box office. “On Stranger Tides” could end up collecting a total of $1 billion, easily justifying the more than $400 million Disney spent on production and advertising.


“People have got to understand the size of the stage,” said Disney distribution President Chuck Viane. “It doesn’t matter where the money comes from anymore.”

In fact, the best news at the domestic box office may have come not for “Pirates” but the modestly budgeted comedy “Bridesmaids.” It dropped only 20% on its second weekend to $21.1 million, an indication of strong word of mouth. The rare female-oriented R-rated comedy is now virtually certain to surpass $100 million, making it one of producer Judd Apatow’s most successful pictures.

To bolster “On Stranger Tides” after 2007’s three-quel grossed less than the 2006 second entry, Disney dropped Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley and brought in Penélope Cruz to costar with Depp. Rob Marshall also replaced director Gore Verbinski and worked with producer Jerry Bruckheimer to simplify the film’s story line compared with its convoluted predecessor.

U.S. and Canadian audiences didn’t seem to appreciate the effort. Though the movie enjoyed the biggest opening of the year in those countries, it came in well behind the last two “Pirates” pictures. They launched to $135.6 million and $114.7 million, respectively, in July 2006 and Memorial Day weekend 2007. The fourth installment is also short of the $100-million mark that Disney executives were hoping the new picture would hit.

“Did I want the number to start with a 1? Absolutely,” said Viane. “But I could never be disappointed with a movie that opens over $90 million.”

3-D appears not to have been a big draw for domestic audiences. Even including Imax digital screens, less than half of the ticket sales for the movie came from locations playing the picture in 3-D, according to three people with access to the data. Viane declined to provide the information.

Despite poor reviews, most people who saw “On Stranger Tides” seemed to like it. U.S. audiences scored the picture a B+, according to market research firm CinemaScore. Even with strong word of mouth, though, “On Stranger Tides” will struggle to avoid being the lowest-grossing “Pirates” movie domestically, a title held by the original “Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl,” which generated $305.4 million in 2003.

Much of the international receipts came from developing countries that are fast becoming important to Hollywood. Russia was the movie’s biggest overseas market, generating $28.6 million, the biggest opening weekend ever for the country. China was second with $20 million, followed by more traditional box-office powerhouses Great Britain, Germany, Japan and France.


3-D may have helped more abroad, where audiences appear not to have grown as tired of the technology as Americans. But it’s also clear that the “Pirates” franchise itself remains vibrant overseas, particularly in countries where many people may not have even seen the original because there were fewer theaters in 2003.

Since the movie’s premiere at Disneyland on May 7, the cast has spent its time doing international publicity including premieres in London, Moscow and at the Cannes Film Festival — an effort that obviously paid off.

Also doing good business internationally this weekend was “Fast Five.” The car-racing heist sequel picked up $25 million from foreign moviegoers, surpassing $300 million internationally and $500 million worldwide.