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liam lacey: behind the screens

Vroom vroom. Rumble rumble. Don't speak the language? No problem. The sounds you hear are a couple of Hollywood movies, which are already overseas as box office hits - and are coming soon to a theatre near you.

Fast Five, the fifth in the series of hot rod racing movies starring Vin Diesel, and the new comic book adaptation Thor, are set to kick off a lucrative summer at the box office after a dead spring. How do we know? Because they've already got a fast start overseas where the big movie money is these days.

Fast Five, which opens here Friday, has already opened at No. 1 in the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand and South Korea. In Australia, it has outstripped the opening weekends of Iron Man and The Bourne Ultimatum.

Thor, which will open in North America on May 6, is the Marvel comic adaptation directed by Kenneth Branagh and starring Chris Hemsworth as the Norse deity, along with Natalie Portman and Anthony Hopkins. Thor has opened so far in Australia, where it trailed Fast Five but still edged out the box office for Iron Man. It also has a strong per-screen average of $26,363 (U.S.) and decent reviews, which suggests Thor has muscular legs.

These two overseas openings indicate a shift in Hollywood in the last decade: International box office has become the tail that wags the Hollywood dog. It jumped 13 per cent last year, while box office flatlined in North America. Last year, international sales represented a record 68 per cent of the world's $32-billion box office. In the years ahead, that share is expected to accelerate.

In China, for example, the government will support the building of about 35,000 more screens over the next five years, up from the current 5,000. Although China allows only about 20 foreign films in each year, in 2010, the Chinese box office jumped 64 per cent, thanks to such American blockbusters as Avatar and Alice in Wonderland. According to a recent speech by Warner Bros. international president Millard Ochs, it should surpass the $10-billion American and Canadian markets within the decade.

One of the consequences of the increasing importance of the foreign market is that Hollywood movies are being tailored to international audiences. Action and special-effects-driven movies such as Fast Five and Thor need no translation. In dubbed versions, no one is going to fuss about Vin Diesel or co-star Dwayne "the Rock" Johnson's elocution.

Nowadays, Hollywood even casts action movies with an eye to overseas sales. The recent G.I. Joe, despite a title that sounds as American as you can get, managed to cast Korean star Byung-hun Lee and South Africa's Arnold Vosloo.

The movie took in more than half of its $302-million box office overseas.

The other genre that travels well is animation, where local actors can provide the voices of the talking toys, cars or birds. The first real blockbuster of 2011 is Rio, which is currently nudging in on $300-million worldwide, boosting 2011's international box office. Less than a third of that revenue comes from the domestic market of Canada and the United States.

Not surprisingly, Rio scored particularly well in Brazil, where it took in an opening weekend record of $8.4-million from 1,013 locations. Here's betting it gets beaten by Fast Five, which sails in international waters under the title Fast and Furious Five: Rio Heist. Brazil is one of the four countries in the world - along with Russia, China and India - where Hollywood sees its future. The only question is, do you prefer Fast and Furious Six: Brakeless in Beijing?


The Bang Bang Club In the early nineties, a group of young photographers risk death and emotional trauma while winning prizes, documenting the violence leading up to South Africa's first post-apartheid elections. Ryan Phillippe, Malin Akerman, Taylor Kitsch and Frank Rautenbach star in a film based on the memoir by photo-journalists Greg Marinovich and Joao Silva.

The Beaver Mel Gibson stars as a Walter Black, an acutely depressed executive who communicates via a beaver hand-puppet with his family and employees. Jodie Foster, who plays his wife, also directs.

Jumping the Broom In this family comedy, the wedding of Sabrina ( Precious star Paula Patton) and Jason (Laz Alonso) brings together her uptown family and his downtown folks over a weekend at Martha's Vineyard. With Loretta Devine, Mike Epps and Angela Bassett.

Pom Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold Morgan Spurlock ( Supersize Me) makes a documentary about movie sponsorship, paid for by sponsors.

Something Borrowed Ginnifer Goodwin stars as Rachel, a single New York lawyer, who falls for Dex (Colin Egglesfeld), the fiancé of her best friend, Darcy (Kate Hudson) in the weeks leading up to Darcy's wedding. Maybe Ginnifer's sidekick friend (John Krasinski) can help out.

Thor Kenneth Branagh directs this Marvel comic adaptation in which warrior god Thor (Australian actor Chris Hemsworth) is cast out of the godly realm of Asgard by his father, Odin (Anthony Hopkins) and sent to live among humans, where he falls in love with a scientist (Natalie Portman).

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