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Brits mull B.O. downturn

Tumbling attendances have dramatically reversed the steady rise of the last 10 years and caused consternation among exhibs. January was solidified thanks to the pull of “Interview With the Vampire” and “Stargate,” but biz has been off ever since with “Dumb and Dumber,” “Far From Home,” “Disclosure” and “Star Trek: Generations” the best of the bunch. It didn’t help that the big Oscar winners were too played out to rekindle much interest.

Comparing conditions with a year ago, Peter Dobson of the Warner Bros. theater chain laments, “We’re missing a ‘Mrs. Doubtfire,’ a ‘Four Weddings,’ a number of key movies that ran and ran.” But while ticket sales may have plummeted 16% over the first four months of 1995, the total 37 million of tickets sold still remains slightly ahead of the same period in 1993.

In a search for scapegoats, some tradesters have put the finger on the highly popular national lottery for taking coin from theater wickets and keeping audiences glued to TV for the Saturday night draw, but most gauge its effect as negligible. Exhibs unite in feeling there is nothing fundamentally wrong with the biz that stronger product won’t cure.

“I’m really bullish that we’re going to do a lot of catch-up in the final six months of this year,” says Peter Dobson. “I’ve seen some of the summer product and it looks very exciting.” Dobson predicts year-end total of tix sold will be down 5 million-7 million on last year’s 123 million, which exceeded wildest hopes, but Steve Knibbs of the UCI loop declares, “I’m an optimist. I think the market will recover sufficiently to do as well as last year.”

The UCI topper points to such forthcoming pics as “Congo,” “First Knight,” “Mighty Morphin Power Rangers,” “Batman Forever,” “Judge Dredd,” “Braveheart,” “Crimson Tide,” “Apollo 13,” “Die Hard With a Vengeance” and “The Fox and the Hound.” “All of those, on the face of it, look like they’re going to do very good business, so that should, hopefully, recover our year quite substantially. The worry is we won’t be able to show these films for as long as we would like to show them because they’ll all come so close together.”

Dearth of long-running main-stream product has helped off-beat fare like “The Madness of King George,” “Muriel’s Wedding,” “Bullets Over Broadway” and “Ed Wood” cross over from the arthouse sector to wider exposure on the big chains, sometimes at the expense of specialist operators.

Tony Jones of City Screen claims that some major distribs with niche product have been favoring multis over his arthouses in Cambridge and Brighton which, with single screens, can’t always come in on the release date. He suggests distribs would be better off waiting for the most suitable venue and recalls the B.O. performance of the New Zealand pic “Once Were Warriors” in Cambridge: “It came and went at the multiplex. We played it subsequently and in one week took more money than they did in two.”

Despite the downturn, under-lying confidence in U.K. exhibition is strong, as shown by the fevered bidding for the MGM chain. The UK’s largest loop has been shedding a few unprofitable sites, refurbishing others, and will be handing its new owners well-advanced schemes for nine-screen multis at the university town of Oxford and locations in Aberdeen, Scotland and Rochester in Kent.

Plex expansion in Blighty has slowed to a trickle with five bows likely this year, the same number as in ’93 and ’94. In April, Warners opened an eight-screener at Cambridge and this summer the loop follows with nine at Leicester in the Midlands where a new design concept devised for all the chain’s future sites will be unveiled with the lobby resembling a soundstage and featuring WB’s Looney Tunes characters and a light show.

This year’s other openings include two by the Odeon chain: a new nine-plex at Hemel Hempstead, north of London, this summer and a five-screener at Lincoln in November. Around October, indie Apollo outfit opens a purpose-built multiplex (five-screens, 750 seats) on the seafront at Rhyl, in north Wales.

There’s been an upsurge in the number of arthouses, with several subsidized outlets opening and others in the pipeline. Newcomers include the two-screen Harbour Lights at Southampton, on the south coast, and the 68-seat David Lean Cinema in an arts center at Croydon, South London, where the late helmer was born.

In 1996, multiplex openings will take off again. Warners will launch five multiplexes – with eight or nine screens each – in the London burbs (Watford, Croydon, Harrow, Finchley and Dagenham) and one in Leeds, which presently has a Showcase plex and several traditional hardtops but now faces the prospect of three new multis in the vicinity.

UCI, the largest plex operator, has bowed two new sites since March 1995. Next year, UCI will set up screens in Surrey Quays, inner South London, and add a third plex to its present two in Dublin.

In North London, Warners awaits planning permission to start a plex at Newham, where National Amusements has announced plans for its own massive 14-screen showcase multi on an adjacent site.

The Odeon loop will replace existing hardtops at Guildford (near London) and Southend (to the east of London) with new nine-screen plexes, opening a five-screener at Luton, and its biggest plex yet: a 12-screener near Glasgow, Scotland.

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