United Intl. Pictures enters direct distribution in Poland this month, as audiences throughout most of Eastern Europe demonstrate an increasing appetite for American films – both the blockbusters and more frivolous fare.

Despite rampant video piracy and economic malaise (as the former Eastern bloc countries make the painful transition to liberalize markets), the U.S. distribs in partnership with local companies report generally vigorous business.

“There was a downturn in admissions in Hungary and Yugoslavia in July/August as people tightened their belts, but we saw an upsurge in November/December,” said Mike Macclesfield, v.p. special markets of UIP, the Paramount/Universal/MGM foreign releasing arm.

Par’s “Ghost” is a hot item in Hungary (49,000 admissions in the first week), where UIP has a co-venture with Budapest Film, and in Yugoslavia (55,000 admissions in Belgrade alone), where its partner is Inex Films.

Last week UIP announced it had firmed a co-venture in Poland with Polish/French firm Eurocom, kicking off Jan. 24 with “Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade” on 22 prints. In February will come “The Hunt For Red October.” Arrangement, initially for one year and covering 20 titles, will guarantee hard currency for UIP.

The Warner Bros./Disney/Touchstone combine bowed in Poland last year allied with video distrib ITI, and clocked 750,000 admissions with “Batman.” WB director of European sales Gary Hoads believes economic factors caused a shortfall on the 1 million he’d expected, but he’s been pleasantly surprised to find “Dead Poets Society” is equaling “Batman’s” numbers.

Polish audiences long starved of U.S. comedies have lapped up the “Police Academy” and National Lampoon series, but the appetite for action pictures is not particularly strong, Hoads noted. The latter circulate on videocassette, as piracy is rampant.

Columbia Tri-Star got going in Poland last August in league with local firm Syrena, and hit the jackpot with “Look Who’s Talking,” which to date has sold 748,000 tickets. Col/Tri-Star Europe v.p. Lester McKellar forecasts gross rentals of $200,000.

In Yugoslavia, where Col/Tri- Star works in tandem with a consortium of regional distribs named Cinematic Pool, “Flatliners” opened two weeks ago in two cities and is a crowdpleaser. Ticket prices in the key cities there were among East Europe’s highest at $2.50.

Hungarian audiences’ tastes sometimes baffles Hoads, noting: “The strangest pictures work there, and the pictures you expect to work do not. They love comedies like ‘Turner & Hooch.’”

Danube Film, the UIP/Budapest Film combine, rang up surprisingly good numbers with “Another 48HRS,” “Crazy People” and “Weekend at Bernie’s.” Ticket prices in Hungary are about 75 cents.

In the USSR, “Gone With The Wind,” launched last October as the maiden release from UIP and the Soviet/British Creative Assn., still is SRO in Moscow (tallying 500,000 admissions) and playing to 80% capacity in other key cities. Warner Communications’ plans to build cinemas in Moscow and Leningrad, and to distribute WB films, seems to have stalled, and the other majors haven’t ventured in yet.

Czechoslovakia is the sole significant East European market that remains virgin territory for the majors. While they await a film reform law expected in March, the majors have ceased supplying product for a flat fee to the state monopoly, Ceskoslovensko Filmexport.

Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more