‘Bean’ stalks B.O.

Cheeky Brit twit tries to tweak 'Troopers'

Will a certain British pipsqueak be able to conquer “Starship Troopers” and its hordes of giant insects at the box office this weekend?

Probably not. But the fact that Grammercy’s quirky “Bean” will be going toe-to-toe with the futuristic warriors and malevolent bugs of Tristar’s effects-driven megapix is something of s shock. It stands a very good shot at outperforming the studio behemoth on a cost-to-return basis, and may set the stage for a holiday season when all bets are off. Consider:

A handful of little pictures — “The Full Monty,” “I Know What You Did Last Summer,” “Soul Food” and “Bean” — not only are stealing thunder from the megapics, but they’re also on their way to becoming the most profitable movies of the year.

Several of these mini-pics, like “Full Monty” and “Bean,” were made without consideration for the U.S. market, which normally dominates the thinking of marketeers.

Indeed, “Bean” bested the $100 mil mark before even dipping a toe in the U.S. — a feat achieved by only a handful of films including “Les Visiteurs,” “The Gods Must Be Crazy” and “The Bear.”

In recent weeks, the perceived little guys, also including “Kiss the Girls,” outperformed high-profile product such as “Seven Years in Tibet,” “The Edge” and “The Devil’s Advocate.”

None of this is to suggest, however, that the big boys’ turn won’t come, as Christmas draws near. Such megapics as “Titanic,” “Flubber,” 007 in “Tomorrow Never Dies” and Kevin Costner’s “The Postman” will be launched with giant ad campaigns. Nonetheless, the sheer number of important movies by important filmmakers underscores the feeling in Hollywood that this will be a season of surprises.

And if one film represents the challenge to the status quo, it’s “Bean.” It certainly has given heart to the “Bean” counters who have quietly built the profile of Rowan Atkinson’s obsequious Brit television creation from a highbrow fave to a youth audience hero.

Russell Schwartz, president of Gramercy Pictures, says that over the course of the summer, awareness of the character and the film has risen from 30% to 55%. Mr. Bean’s childish behavior and physicality have registered strongest with youngsters, trade screenings have been enthusiastically received by exhibitors and the picture is now on track to debut with more than 1,500 playdates.

Thanks to Gramercy, “Bean” has been building awareness. It began during the summer with short clips from the series used as teaser trailers. Segs from Atkinson’s show were also employed as short subjects in an arrangement with Cineplex Odeon theaters.

Across town at Sony, there’s a lot of head-scratching going on with execs trying to figure out how much damage “Bean’s” PG shenanigans can do to Sony’s megabudget, R-rated war romp.

Atkinson’s diminutive, downtrodden, rubber-faced toady was a highly successful TV series around the world, attracting a niche following in the U.S. from rotations on PBS and cable’s HBO and Comedy Central. The idea of a theatrical feature had been kicking around for years, but skepticism reigned about the character translating to the bigscreen and other cultures, even though the series demonstrated his international appeal.

Last year, Polygram finally cemented a deal and OK’d a plush (not flush) $17 million budget. Released in England in August, “Bean” has grossed more than $23 million at home and an additional $95 million in Europe and Australasia.

“The American market was literally not a factor in the making of the movie. The company knew it didn’t need the States to be commercially viable,” Schwartz says. “Even after it had opened to massive box office overseas, the expectations were conservative for the States.

“Really it wasn’t until the picture played in places like Spain, Brazil and Hong Kong — where it wasn’t a popular series — that we began to think it could be a big hit here.”

It’s unlikely “Bean” will outgun “Starship Troopers’ ” giant insect hordes, even armed with a colossal can of Raid.

The picture has been a wakeup call to an industry long content in its insularity. Just last month another Brit pic, “The Full Monty,” demonstrated that a small movie with heart and humor could cross over and maintain its own against big Hollywood fare.

Another import, Japan’s “Shall We Dance?,” has expanded beyond the traditional foreign-language niche and will soon reach $10 million domestically, a level only a handful of non-English language films have reached in the past decade.

Still, translating a popular success from abroad for American audiences has been one of the most daunting of cinematic challenges. For every hit like “Il Postino” and “Crocodile Dundee,” there are dozens of examples of popular national releases that never made the ocean voyage or were dashed on the rocks.

“Bean” has an edge on many imports for a couple of key reasons: First, it’s in English, and second, the story is set in America. Like “Bean,” an amazing number of the most successful transplants — including “Dundee,” “Rumble in the Bronx” and “The Gods Must Be Crazy” — have been classic fish-out-of-water stories.

British, Canadian and Australian pictures have had considerably better access to the U.S. marketplace since the dawn of movies. However, only two foreign copyright entries have ever grossed more than $100 million domestically: the 1986 “Crocodile Dundee” from Oz (the sequel was U.S.-financed) and 1981’s “Porky’s,” set in the States but financed by Canada’s Astral.

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