CATEGORIES Movies
If you saw "Iron Man 3" in a North American theater this weekend and didn't have its major plot twist spoiled for you, consider yourself lucky. After all, people in nearly every movie market around the world got to see the movie a week before you did.

It's become increasingly common for Hollywood's would-be blockbusters to open all over the globe before they finally make it to our own shores. "Iron Man 3" opened in territories throughout the world on the weekend of April 26 before opening here on May 3. It follows in the footsteps of Tom Cruise's sci-fi epic "Oblivion," which also opened overseas a week before it opened here on April 19. "Star Trek Into Darkness" has already opened in some countries, a full two weeks before it opens in North America.

Not long ago, homegrown Hollywood "event movies" like these would have opened in America first, then abroad. Or they would have opened everywhere in the world on the same day, a measure that not only created worldwide hype for the films but also thwarted pirates who might have taken advantage of the release-date gap to flood a country's streets with bootleg DVDs from another country where the movie had already opened. So what changed? Why does Hollywood now make America wait to see its own movies until after they've premiered throughout the rest of the world?

More than anything else, the shift reflects how the international market, once just gravy for Hollywood, has eclipsed the domestic market as the main source of revenue for mainstream theatrical releases. As big as last year's "The Avengers" was at home ($623.4 million), it was even bigger abroad ($888.4 million). Of that foreign total, $185.1 million came in on the film's overseas opening weekend, which took place a week before the movie premiered here. So it's no wonder that Disney would repeat the strategy for "Iron Man 3."

And the strategy worked. A week ago, "iron Man 3" beat the foreign opening weekend record set by "The Avengers," earning $198.4 million. Before a single American ticketbuyer had seen it, "Iron Man 3" had earned $307.7 million. By Sunday, when Disney was reporting that the Robert Downey Jr. threequel had opened here with an enormous $175.3 million, second-weekend grosses had already driven the international earnings to $504.8 million, for a global total of $680.1 million. Not bad for ten days' work.

It's certainly reassuring for studios to know that an expensive blockbuster-hopeful is a hit even before it opens in the U.S. Universal moved "Oblivion," initially scheduled for summer, to April, setting it up to grab what it could in the two weeks before "Iron Man 3" opened. But that meant it also had to open a week earlier overseas. Which was fine; Tom Cruise movies routinely perform much better abroad than they do here, which is why Cruise remains an A-lister despite his modest box office performance in America."Oblivion" earned only about $70 million in North America in the 14 days before "Iron Man 3" opened domestically, but by then, it had earned twice as much overseas. The movie opened with $60.4 million abroad a week before its American debut netted $57.1 million. As of this weekend, "Oblivion" has earned $222.8 million worldwide, with two thirds of that coming from foreign markets.

One sign of how important these international early releases have become is the promotional travel schedules of the stars. They're sent out to tout their films around the world, often for months at a time, appearing at red-carpet premieres in multiple countries. By the time it opens here, "Star Trek Into Darkness" will have staged seven such premieres. So in some cases, these staggered release patterns are just a matter of scheduling around other factors.

"Worldwide release dates often come down to timing issues," Exhibitor Relations Co. Senior Box Office Analyst Jeff Bock tells Moviefone. "When can Robert Downey Jr. trot around the globe? When are the other studios releasing their films overseas, and how can our release maximize profits? And sometimes, it comes down to increasing the viability of an unknown commodity like 'Battleship' or 'Oblivion.'"

In the cases of "The Avengers" and "Iron Man 3," there were also international holidays to consider. Unlike in America, "May Day is a holiday throughout the world," Disney's Vice President of Distribution for Motion Pictures Dave Hollis tells Moviefone, by way of explaining the week-early overseas releases of those two films.

Hollis says he doesn't know when or why Hollywood shifted from simultaneous worldwide "day and date" releases to a staggered rollout schedule where the U.S. comes last. But he does say that such release patterns work well for Disney's event movies, since the buzz from successful international releases helps generate excitement among American moviegoers. "There's a trickling effect as these movies move into the domestic space," he says. "It creates a wisdom-of-crowds mentality."

Still, does the delayed domestic release mean that the U.S. market is now an afterthought? "The truth is, with the emergence of Russia and China and other foreign territories as premium box office markets, the United States is starting to become just another territory on the studios' release schedule," Bock says."This global strategy is becoming a more common occurrence each year as blockbusters are adapting to a worldwide release pattern instead of one that is U.S.-centric."

Hollis, however, suggests that such a release strategy is the natural result of crafting movies targeted toward audiences everywhere, not just American viewers. Action spectacles like superhero movies, where the threats are global and the dialogue isn't that important, are built to work in countries throughout the world. "These movies transcend geography and culture," Hollis says. "They have a universal appeal."