Grosses grow as 21 pix hit $100 mil

SYDNEY — U.S. majors collectively are certain to finish 1997 with record grosses outside the U.S., as an unprecedented 21 titles have earned more than $100 million each overseas.

As of today, just a dozen films, including the recently released “Titanic,” had topped $100 million domestically.

Disney’s Buena Vista Intl. is a sure-fire bet to win the majors’ sweepstakes abroad, clocking receipts of close to $1.3 billion, an industry high.

Sony’s Columbia TriStar Intl. passed the $1 billion B.O. mark Dec. 8 for the first time in its history, and while 20th Century Fox Intl. isn’t ready to predict where it will finish, division president Jim Gianopulos believes its grosses will “approximate” $1 billion, a company record.

Never before have three U.S. studios reached the billion-dollar watershed overseas in one year. While final figures for this year won’t be tabulated until early next month, U.S. distribs uniformly predict the majors will comfortably beat their 1996 record of $5.5 billion in ticket sales outside the U.S. That was a gain of nearly 6% on 1995.

Hearty portion

Although Hollywood devoured the lion’s share of the 21 clicks’ total receipts of well over $3 billion (topping last year’s 15 pics pulling $2.6 billion), four films of non-U.S. origin joined the $100 million winners’ circle. British comedies “Bean” with Rowan Atkinson (Polygram) and “The Full Monty” (Fox) vied for the sleeper of the year accolade, while “The Fifth Element” (directed by Luc Besson and financed by Gallic major Gaumont) ranked third, and Japanese animated sensation “The Princess Mononoke” surpassed “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” to become the highest-earning film in Nippon history.

The B.O. year overseas is finishing with a big bang.

UIP was scoring with “Tomorrow Never Dies.” The latest James Bond adventure had pulled in $77.1 million in European territories since its Dec. 12 bow in the U.K.

Initial overseas voyages for “Titanic” proved promising for Fox, pulling in $25.9 million. By the time “Titanic” hits full steam in late January, Fox will have around 4,000 prints of James Cameron’s epic working overseas.

Fox Intl. was orchestrating 37 releases of three films: “Titanic” in eight markets including Japan, Australia and Taiwan; “Anastasia” in seven Latino territories and South Korea; and “Home Alone 3″ in 21 countries, chiefly in Europe.

Gianopulos isn’t deterred by the “Home Alone” sequel’s soft domestic debut, and says there’s been a terrific response abroad from promo screenings and exhibs.

Full plate for BVI

Buena Vista Intl. is weighing in with a potent holiday season cocktail of “Hercules” in Europe, “Starship Troopers” in Asia, “George of the Jungle” in the U.K. and “Flubber” in Latin America and Southeast Asia.

Following the mammoth world preem of “Tomorrow Never Dies” in the U.K., United Intl. Pictures rolled out the new 007 through Europe during the week that followed; the Pierce Brosnan starrer is set for Southeast Asia during Chinese New Year and for Japan in March. UIP also has Bruce Willis dueling with Richard Gere in “The Jackal” in many territories through mid-January.

“There is no doubt 1997 is a record year for the industry,” said BVI president Mark Zoradi, whose banner is set to complete back-to-back victories overseas.

An analysis of the 21 top grossers reflects several shifts in audience and B.O. trends:

- Sci-fi and comedy were the dominant genres, typified by the towering performances of “The Lost World: Jurassic Park,” “Men in Black,” “The Fifth Element” and “Bean.”

- While U.S. action-adventures have been as dynamic as ever in Asia and Latin America, the genre has wilted somewhat in Europe. Blame that on a glut of shoot-‘em-ups in Europe through the summer and early fall, combined with a strong jingoistic streak in some titles that did not play well with Euro sensibilities.

“In some territories in Europe, too many actioners were released (on one another’s heels),” UIP exec VP Andrew Cripps said. “Distributors should be a bit smarter in sequencing similar types of films.”

Bad timing

BVI, which has foreign rights to “Air Force One,” expects the Harrison Ford starrer eventually to equal its domestic haul of $171 million, despite subpar seasons in the U.K. and Italy. In the U.K., its launch had the misfortune of coinciding with the death of Princess Diana, which forced the cancellation of the preem and the temporary suspension of the ad-promo campaign — blows from which the film never recovered.

BVI’s Zoradi rates “Face/Off’s” figures in Europe as good but not as stellar as in Asia, where he believes helmer John Woo is held with the same reverence as Steven Spielberg.

- The proliferation of multiplexes in many markets has created more playing time and earning potential for midrange films as well as the blockbusters. Witness BVI’s “George of the Jungle,” Largo Entertainment’s “G.I. Jane” and Sony pair “The Devil’s Own” — which just missed the $100 million mark after topping out at $98 million — and “Anaconda’s” $70 million, a highly creditable result for a starless actioner.

Longer life

“Five or 10 years ago, your film would be playing at one or two downtown theaters (in a typical foreign city), and there would be no move-overs,” Columbia TriStar Intl. president Duncan Clark said. “Now you can be playing for seven weeks or longer at a multiplex, but in a very competitive environment, films still need to do their numbers. The big difference in the value of the world (outside the U.S.) is that multiplexes are extending the lives of films in every market that has seen expansion in exhibition.”

Clark contends that genre matters less than execution in determining the fate of films abroad: “Audiences want to see movie stars and good stories. It does not have to be a particular genre.”

Concurred Gianopulos, “I do think audiences internationally are becoming more sophisticated: They want something that’s different and compelling. They are not as receptive to spectacles that offer pure action for its own sake.”

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