Why the Avengers Debuted Overseas

Zade Rosenthal (C) Marvel-Disney

Bad news, American superfans: you're late to the party, and you probably will be from now on. Even if you lined up for a midnight screening of The Avengers, you were behind fans in France, Taiwan, Peru, and the dozens of other countries where the movie debuted before the U.S.

Disney isn't the only studio putting the U.S. last on its itinerary this summer. Universal's Battleship has been playing overseas for more than a month, and 20th Century Fox's Ice Age: Continental Drift will play internationally for more than two weeks before opening here.

It wasn't always this way. Ten years ago films ran for weeks or months in the U.S. before trickling out to the rest of the world. Studios, aided by the lower distribution cost of digital cinema, cut down that lag so that impatient fans would stop downloading their movies, but the States still went first. Then last year a few films—Thor, Fast Five—jumped the gun by a week, and this summer Hollywood is starting to reverse its old order of operations in earnest.

"Before this summer it was very rare to see a film open internationally first," says Jeff Bock, box-office analyst at Exhibitor Relations Co. "But it was bound to happen, and I think it's going to continue." Why? Follow the money: North America made up only a third of global box-office sales last year, and its share is falling fast. "They'll get them first because they're paying for them."

Take Ice Age. The last movie made $690 million abroad, more than three times its domestic total. With those numbers, says Paul Hanneman, co-president of Fox International, the important thing was to open the sequel abroad before everyone gets swept up in Euro Cup mania. American audiences no longer set the agenda: they'll have to wait for later in the summer. "Everyone has a bit more leeway than in the past, when everybody felt like the U.S. had to launch the product."

"The world is not working on an American cultural calendar," says David Kosse, president of international for Universal Pictures. His studio opened Battleship early to avoid the Euro Cup and to capitalize on holidays in Japan, China, and South Korea, breaking with the traditional American blockbuster summer. "Internationally it's far more of a four-season world. It's not summer in lots of these countries."

The Battleship move paid off, to the tune of $200 million. Disney opened The Avengers in time for May Day holidays abroad. It earned $185 million. The message is clear: as Hollywood spreads out over the globe, expect to see the summer blockbuster schedule spread over the rest of the calendar. "In a couple years it won't shock anybody if Avengers 3 opens in February," says Bock, "and in China."