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A brave new world aids int’l box office

Andrew Cripps, UIP senior VP, international sales, considers the burgeoning foreign box office and can’t help but hungrily eye the share of the pie available for U.S. pics. “The growth potential internationally is just huge,” Cripps says. “I think you’ll find on the major action films, big event movies, international (box office) now is consistently outgrossing domestic, not just for our studios but for all studios.”

Cripps attributes much of the increased income of recent years to the arrival of multiplexes which has boosted attendance particularly in the U.K., Ireland, Germany and Spain.

The proliferation of media interest in the both the North American opening and subsequent B.O. performance of films like “Waterworld” and “Forrest Gump” has whetted appetites to see the latest Yank hits. Cripps expresses frustration with the long summer break in some Mediterranean countries which delays the opening of hot titles.

“It’s crazy. You can’t release a film until Sept. 1 in Italy. They’ve got all the summer stuff trying to get out in the same eight-week period, so a lot of films will be terminated early. Films won’t get the proper spread of theaters that in a normal market they deserve.

“Until somebody builds more theaters, that’s the problem we’re stuck with. Look at Rome – it closes down for a lot of August, but if you had modern multiplexes with air conditioning at the beachside resorts, people would go.”

There’s also a lack of modern, air-conditioned theaters in Greece, according to Cripps, who adds that product there gets into the market late, and video pirates take their toll.

New frontiers

However, new areas are being opened up. Mike Macclesfield, VP, international sales and development, points to Central Europe. “We were the first to start in Hungary even before the Berlin Wall came down. We set up an operation and found a way of converting the foreign into hard currency. We also set up our own operation in Turkey before anyone else. And we have a licensee in Poland – that market has grown tremendously in the past two years.”

Macclesfield notes that UIP used to sell flat in Poland at a maximum of $30,000 a title. Then “Jurassic Park” did $2.3 million in rentals and “Schindler’s List” did more than $1 million, making markets such as Poland a tremendous asset to UIP.

Macclesfield also notes with satisfaction that the Paramount/Universal exhib partnership, United Cinemas Intl., is planning 10 multis in Poland.

Russia, though, is now a trouble zone, Macclesfield says, adding that “Gone With the Wind” was the first picture released on a rental basis there, since all the majors previously just sold product at a flat fee. “We handled the marketing campaign and it was a tremendous success,” says Macclesfield. “Then, because of piracy, the MPEAA companies decided to put an embargo on releasing product in Russia. That lasted three years, during which time the distribution network more or less collapsed. Pirates went in and took advantage of the vacuum. A lot of B-grade movies were the only ones available.”

Macclesfield says the majors are looking at how they can resurrect the Russian market. “There’s a new strategy – Warners, Columbia and UIP are making a joint effort. We’re going to select one distributor and see if it makes economic sense to do that – to try and encourage theater owners to do something about refurbishing and bringing more people into their theaters.”

In India, the situation is altogether rosier. UIP already had an operation in there, and expanded by taking a plunge into the dubbing of titles into Hind – ‘Jurassic Park’ was the first dubbed release. Its success and changed the face of UIP’s distribution in India.

“Since then, we’ve dubbed ‘Schindler’s List’ which was not all that successful, and ‘True Lies’ which was very successful,” Macclesfield says. “The next is going to be ‘The Flintstones.'”

UIP is making some progress in the formidable market opening up in China. As Cripps explains, “We’ve got a joint venture with Golden Harvest, and a release deal through China Film, the only licensed distribution company.”

So far, UIP has released two films in China, “True Lies” and “Forrest Gump.” “Lies” has grossed about $10.5 million, and “Gump,” released more than two months later, has grossed more than $2 million, according to Cripps.

“China is very slow going,” says Cripps. “It’s frustrating, but you can see from ‘True Lies’ the potential when a film grosses over $10 million, despite the ticket price being incredibly low.”

Cripps says the other East Asian country for which UIP has high hopes is Vietnam. UIP has a deal, in conjunction with Golden Harvest, with state distributor Fa Film, and has released three titles to date – “True Lies,” “Blown Away” as well as “Staying Alive,” the 1983 sequel to “Saturday Night Fever.” “The infrastructure is again 30 years behind (the West’s),” explains Cripps.

“But a lot of people are sniffing around (to build multis),” says Cripps, who believes that with the United States establishing diplomatic relations with Vietnam, the market will open up quickly.

The potential rewards are indicated by South Korea, a now well-behaved market which was opened up despite violent opposition. “It’s the second biggest territory in Asia in revenue for us – just after Japan,” notes Cripps. “It’s tremendous.”

Recently returned from a conference of UIP’s Latin American managers, Cripps says he’s excited by the plans of American chains to build ‘plexes in Brazil, Argentina, Chile and elsewhere. Despite last year’s devaluation, Mexico is the strongest country in the region, having joined the list of the top 10 territories worldwide for the past two years, thanks to 70 or more multis opening there.

“The level of optimism is incredible this year in Latin America,” says Cripps. “I think in the next three to five years, you’re going to see incredible growth down there.”

Still, not all the pics from UIP’s parent studios are suitable for every territory,” Cripps says. UIP makes an evaluation by circulating a print from the studio, and if UIP feels it can break even or turn a small profit it will release the film, says Cripps.

The John Carpenter remake of “Village of the Damned” is one pic currently being tested for drawing power. “We’re releasing ‘Village of the Damned’ in a large number of territories”, Cripps says. “With a title like that, we’ll usually take the group of territories which we think has the best chance with it. The marketing department will often come up with a new campaign which they feel is more appealing.

“If we lose money in those markets, we’ll usually go back to the studio and recommend that we don’t proceed any further. If those markets make money, it makes sense to go further and release in some more territories.”

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