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'Aquaman' tops billion-dollar benchmark thanks to international ticket sales

Key Points
  • "Aquaman" topped $1 billion at the global box office last weekend.
  • The film's success shows why international ticket sales are so important to Hollywood.
  • More than 70 percent of the film's revenue came from countries outside the U.S.
Source: Warner Bros. | DC Comics

As "Aquaman" surpasses the $1 billion box-office mark, one thing becomes clear: International ticket sales are increasingly important for Hollywood blockbusters.

The superhero film, starring Jason Momoa in the title role, has hauled in $1.02 billion at the box office since its December release, making it the highest-grossing film in the DC cinematic universe and the latest entry into the billion-dollar movie club, of which there are fewer than 40 films.

While "Aquaman" has secured $287 million in domestic ticket sales, a sum on par with second-tier heroes from Marvel's slate of superhero films, a staggering 70 percent of its revenue is from international markets. These days, international markets are a huge factor in the success of a Hollywood film. A poor or even middling performance in the U.S. can be erased if moviegoers around the world embrace the film.

More than $732 million of the total gross from "Aquaman" is from countries outside the U.S., including China, the United Kingdom, Mexico and Brazil. In China alone the film brought in $284 million.

International returns will likely slow in the coming weeks, though, as "Aquaman" was released two weeks earlier internationally than in the U.S., said Doug Stone, president of Box Office Analyst.

"We expect that 'Aquaman' will finish probably around $330 [million] to $350 million [domestically], while the overseas returns will be declining more rapidly as most of the big markets have already seen a large portion of the gross collected," he said.

The film's strong international box office is not unheard of for Hollywood films, particularly in the last decade.

The majority of DC's films earned the bulk of their gross from international markets, but the percentage for "Aquaman" is by far the highest. For comparison, "Justice League" garnered about 65 percent of its total box office from international cinemagoers.

Marvel, too, has received much of its revenue from international markets. On average, about 60 percent of Marvel's box-office sales has come from outside the U.S.

And superhero flicks aren't the only ones to see benefits from audiences across the globe.

U.S. moviegoers have been bombarded with sequels over the last few decades and, for the most part, with each one that is released, their excitement for the next wanes. That's not the case in other countries.

International audiences, particularly in China, India and South America, still embrace these films because they grew up on big American blockbusters and enjoy the action-packed adventures. China is the second-largest film market in the world and is expected to surpass the U.S. in the next few years to become the largest. It's why a lot of production companies and distributors have been paying more attention to Asia when it comes to these big Hollywood releases.

"The big franchises do well in China," said Paul Dergarabedian, senior analyst at Comscore. "By the time the U.S. is burned out, China is embracing it."

While the first three "Pirates of the Caribbean" movies saw strong ticket sales in the U.S., when the fourth and fifth rolled around, audiences were less inclined to head to the theaters. However, international audiences went in droves.

The fourth installment, "On Stranger Tides," garnered about $241 million in the U.S. but more than $800 million from foreign markets.

And the "Pirates of the Caribbean" franchise isn't the only one that gets an international boost.

The "Transformers" films have also been met by lackluster reviews and U.S. audience fatigue.

The fourth film, "Age of Extinction," in particular, excelled internationally. The film earned around $245 million in the U.S. but a whopping $858 million overseas.

Dergarabedian attributed the film's international success not only to the action sequences but to the casting of Mark Wahlberg, an action movie star, and the fact that much of the film takes place in China. International audiences like movies that are set on a global stage.

But action sequences and Hollywood actors aren't the only reason people are flocking to the movies in these countries.

For China, in particular, there has been a massive boom in the opening of new movie theaters, many of which are IMAX theaters. Dergarabedian noted that the experience of going to see a movie is just as important as the film that viewers are going to see. So the humongous IMAX screens and comfortable lounge chairs have enticed folks out of their homes to see these films in theaters.

"Aquaman" hits quite a few of these check marks for audiences. It's a big-budget action flick, it has a huge star in Momoa, and was directed by James Wan, an Australian of Malaysian Chinese descent.

"China can turn a box-office zero into a box-office hero," Dergarabedian said.

Disclosure: NBC Universal, the parent of CNBC, has a licensing agreement with the "Transformers" franchise.