LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Maybe Crocodile Dundee should have starred in "Australia."
Twentieth Century Fox appears to have given up on director Baz Luhrmann's latest period epic in North America, and is hoping that foreign sales will rescue the costly picture.
The movie has sold just $44.3 million worth of tickets at the U.S. and Canadian box office after five weekends, and is shaping up to be the latest in a line of disappointments for its star, Nicole Kidman.
The News Corp-owned studio says it hopes "Australia" will reach $50 million domestically. The project cost $130 million and movie theaters generally keep about half of the gross.
"We were hoping to do more in the U.S., but it's tough. There's a lot of competition," said Bert Livingston, Fox's senior vice-president of domestic distribution.
Adding insult to injury, "Australia" failed to get any nomination for the Golden Globe, Critics Choice and Screen Actors Guild awards. Fox had counted on the recognition to boost its Oscar hopes and to expand the movie beyond its core audience of older women.
This past Christmas holiday weekend, one of the busiest of the year, "Australia" tumbled 10 places to No. 19 with four-day sales of $1.3 million, according to tracking firm Media By Numbers. It played in 711 theaters, down from 2,212 the weekend before. The top film was Fox's canine comedy "Marley & Me," which opened to $50.7 million.
"Australia" is doing respectably overseas, with ticket sales of about $46 million from 51 countries, Fox said. The top market, naturally, is Australia with $16 million after five weekends. It opened at No. 1 in Spain, France and Germany last weekend, but at No. 3 in Britain.
Foreign sales are crucial as Luhrmann's previous films, 2001's "Moulin Rouge" and 1996's "Romeo + Juliet" each earned about two-thirds of their worldwide hauls outside of North America. By contrast, recent smashes "The Dark Knight" and "Iron Man" tallied slightly more domestically.
Kidman plays an icy English aristocrat who falls for a cowboy played by compatriot Hugh Jackman as they drive her herd of cattle across the Australian outback during the early days of World War Two.
Reviews were mixed, although critics generally agreed that it looked great.
Despite winning an Oscar in 2003 for "The Hours," Kidman is not a big box office draw. The 41-year-old actress has never headlined a movie that grossed more than $100 million in North America. Her recent flops include "The Invasion" and "Fur." Forbes magazine reported in September that she was Hollywood's most overpaid celebrity.
Fox was hoping "Australia" would make up for a bad summer, when it dropped such bombs as the Eddie Murphy comedy "Meet Dave" and a belated "X-Files" sequel. But the studio enjoys a reputation for fiscal discipline, and a spokesman said Australian taxpayers would refund upwards of 40 percent of the film's $130 million cost through a new government subsidy.
Kidman's publicist did not return messages. Luhrmann's publicist referred inquiries to Fox. In an interview two weeks ago with the Hollywood Reporter, Luhrmann likened his movie to "old Hollywood classics" like "Gone with the Wind."
He also said "Australia" was on a similar trajectory as "Moulin Rouge," which ended up with $72 million in North America. But after five weekends in wide release, that film had banked about $60 million and was still playing in 1,271 theaters, according to inflation-adjusted data provided by Box Office Mojo.
Editing by Jill Serjeant and Sandra Maler