The disconnect between foreign and domestic box office is highlighted by robust overseas holiday business on two stateside underperformers, Fox/Walden Media’s The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of Dawn Treader (pictured) and Fox's Gulliver's Travels.
Dawn Treader quietly sailed past $100 million at the domestic box office on Jan. 23rd -- a remarkable feat considering that many pronounced the threequel dead in the water after its $24.3 million bow, an all-time low for the franchise. But that’s not all: Dawn Treader sped past Disney’s Tron: Legacy at the global B.O., $373 million vs. $363 million, and is poised to whip the foreign take of the previous Narnia chapter, Prince Caspian ($278 million).
And while critics and U.S. audiences beheaded Fox’s Jack Black adventure comedy Gulliver’s Travels ($41 million), the feature adaptation of Jonathan Swift’s novel is a sensation overseas, grossing $127.8 million with an eye on a final $180 million take as it unspools throughout Europe this month.
It might have appeared that Dawn Treader was just another 3-D title (repping 58% of its U.S. total) in a crowded PG season, but moviegoers told their friends otherwise. To date, Dawn Treader has made $102 million at the domestic B.O. – a number that Warner Bros.’ pop toon Yogi Bear ($93 million) has yet to hit. Such good news has spurred talks between Fox and Walden Media about bringing the fourth C.S. Lewis book The Silver Chair to the screen. Clearly, audiences burnt by a weak second Narnia entry were brought back to the cinemas by upbeat word-of-mouth. But three Narnia titles are stronger than the rest of the seven-book series: the first, The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, the third, The Voyage of the Dawn Trader, and the sixth, The Magician's Nephew, which is actually an origin story. The other four are far weaker, including Prince Caspian, The Silver Chair, standalone A Horse and His Boy and The Last Battle, which concludes the narrative.
“The second [Narnia] film left a less-than-satisfied flavor in the audiences, and Treader marked a return to the spirit of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” observed Fox senior VP of distribution Chris Aronson, about the masses' desire to climb aboard. “Dawn Treader provided more heart and a whimsical sense of adventure.”
Looking back at the all-time top December openers list, the odds were in favor of Dawn Treader outperforming its domestic opening weekend with a four-times-plus multiple. Of thirteen December releases opening between $20 and $26 million, only five failed to make it past $100 million, including New Line’s 2007 attempted kid lit launch The Golden Compass ($25.8 million opening; $70.1 million domestic).
But odds were always good that Dawn Treader’s best patrons would be foreigners (current foreign B.O. $273 million) and Fox opted to send the same message to the overseas market.
“We did a lot of research before releasing this film and learned that audiences didn’t like the second film because it lacked the magic, mystery and adventure of the first film,” says Fox International co-president Paul Hanneman, “When it came to marketing Dawn Treader, it was these qualities that we emphasized.”
Rather than capitalize on the Narnia brand in a universal campaign, Fox International tailored a country-by-country secular promotion, unlike the U.S.'s Christian focus. Fox tapped the Chirstian niche where appropriate, hosting screenings for Evangelical Christians in South Africa and conducted grassroots efforts in Latin America. “Voyage” became the central message in Dawn Treader’s ads; a character action collage à la Lord of the Rings repped the key outdoor/print images in many territories over Aslan the Lion, which was the signature U.S. hook.
A significant change-up from domestic marketing is one of the factors that contributed to Gullliver’s Travels domination abroad, not to mention Jack Black’s untiring participation in a globetrotting tour that took him to Dublin, London, Amsterdam, Cologne, Mexico City and Sydney.
Overseas print campaigns upped the stakes in playing off Gulliver’s size, more so than the U.S. posters. In August, Black participated in a photo shoot that featured him in various poses: Squeezed under a bonsai tree, assembling a battalion of G.I. Joe action figures and corralling a stable of miniature horses. The images played well throughout a variety of film, lifestyle, and children’s magazines – outlets which remain vital marketing tools for reaching foreign audiences--even in the digital age.
On the road, Black stopped off to record station I.D.s and provided facetime on the X-Factor and popular kids shows like Blue Peter in the U.K. For a key EPK promo, Black shot an advance green-screen segment during the London junket for the film so that Black could pick up journalists in his hands to answer questions; channels in Italy, UK, Spain and Russia picked up the video clip.
Also contributing to the success of Gulliver’s Travels: “the book is well known internationally and widely read among students,” says Hanneman. Fox International co-president Tomas Jegeus observes that Gulliver’s Travels also has a “Monty Python humor sensibility” – which widened its overseas appeal.
“Depending on the market, we changed the tonality of the film: Latin America was more slapstick while Europe focused on the irreverence,” adds Jegeus. But, the boffo success of Gulliver’s Travels, Dawn Treader and even The Tourist ($66.6 million domestic; $150.3 million abroad) reminds that foreign audiences are often more key than Americans in building hits. But while New Line’s The Golden Compass, the first in a planned series, made $302 million abroad, over four times its domestic results, parent company Warner Bros. wasn’t impressed enough to produce a sequel.