Filmmakers Kathleen Kennedy and Steven Spielberg attend the premiere… (Pascal Le Segretain, Getty…)
It has already had star-studded, red-carpet premieres in three major cities. It's being promoted everywhere from Gap stores to McDonald's to the side of trains. And, early ticket sales indicate it could enjoy a big opening.
Yet, American audiences won't see Steven Spielberg's much-hyped family movie until Christmas.
The director's big-budget 3-D animated movie "The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn," produced by Peter Jackson, is opening this weekend in Europe — nearly two months before it opens in this country.
Paramount Pictures and Sony Pictures timed the releases largely to maximize returns in Europe, where the 82-year-old Belgian comic book series on which the film is based is part of the cultural history. In the U.S., "Tintin" is foreign to most moviegoers, so a healthy international premiere could boost its box-office prospects when it opens in the U.S. on Dec. 21.
"If you can build a track record of success, it tends to spell more success," said Stephen Moore, a former president of Fox International who now heads the British charity MediCinema. "It could arrive in the U.S. polished and shiny and ready to perform."
"Tintin," which employs "Avatar"-like motion-capture technology, stars Jamie Bell as a young reporter searching for a hidden treasure along with his sidekick dog and a drunken sailor played by Andy Serkis. Comics featuring the characters, created by artist Herge in 1929, have sold a reported 350 million copies worldwide and been adapted into popular television cartoons abroad. In Herge's native Belgium and nearby France, Tintin is as beloved an icon as Spider-Man is in the U.S.
Although it is not uncommon for movies to premiere abroad weeks before their domestic launch, "Tintin's" especially early release underscores the growing importance of the global entertainment market to Hollywood studios. Foreign ticket sales now account for almost 70% of the movie industry's annual box office revenue. And this year, the 3-D family films "The Smurfs" and "Kung Fu Panda 2" generated more than 75% of their returns outside the U.S.
"Normally, you pick your best domestic opening date and then schedule it overseas a few weeks before or after," said Paramount Vice Chairman Rob Moore. "But we expect 'Tintin' to gross two or three times as much internationally as domestically, and designed our release pattern to facilitate that."
Despite the big-name talent behind it, "Tintin's" journey to the big screen wasn't an easy one. Originally developed by Spielberg's DreamWorks and Universal Pictures, the film was ultimately abandoned by both over budgetary concerns in 2008. At the time, Universal said the film's proposed $130-million production cost was too financially risky because the picture would have to earn more than $400 million just to break even.
Paramount and Sony, which are evenly splitting expenses and profits, are investing even more money in the project. The movie cost $150 million to $175 million after tax credits, according to people close to the production. The studios will also spend more than $100 million to market and release the movie worldwide.
Upping the movie's high stakes, about 30% of "Tintin" revenue will go directly to Spielberg and Jackson, making it even more difficult for the studios to reap a big profit.
To capitalize on the picture's European appeal , the studios decided to release "Tintin" at the beginning of a school holiday that is one of the most popular moviegoing times of the year. In addition, there are no other family films opening on the continent for a month.
Meanwhile, in Spain and Britain, the Tintin character is also well known and likely to resonate with audiences.
"There are generations here who grew up on the animated series and books," said Tim Richards, chief executive of British theater chain Vue Cinemas.
In the last week "Tintin" has had premieres in Brussels, Paris and London with Spielberg, Jackson and the cast doing extensive publicity. Reviews across the continent have been overwhelmingly positive.
Over the next two months, it will launch in Asia, including China, followed by Latin America and Australia.
While studio executives expect the movie to gross more than $100 million in Europe , it faces significant challenges in the rest of the world, including the U.S., where 3-D motion-capture releases such as "Mars Needs Moms" and "A Christmas Carol" have struggled at the box office.
Sony Vice Chairman Jeff Blake said early evidence suggested an aggressive marketing campaign centered on the movie's A-list filmmakers can overcome those barriers.
"Initially the tracking in Germany and Russia was modest," Blake said of countries where "Tintin" is less popular. "But as people have seen the promotional materials, interest has grown in leaps and bounds."
Spielberg, meanwhile, said the challenges should be no greater than those of other hits he and his partner have produced.
"People didn't know 'Indiana Jones' when 'Raiders [of the Lost Ark]' came out," he noted in an interview at this summer's Comic-Con International. "Also, most of the people who went to see 'Lord of the Rings' didn't sit down to read Tolkien before they went to movie."
Times staff writer Geoff Boucher contributed to this report.