Old World charms B.O.

American heavyweights like Hercules and 007 will jostle with some hot local pics in what is certain to be one of the healthiest holiday box office seasons across Europe in years.

Local contenders — from Italy’s comic Roberto Benigni to Britain’s Spice Girls to the director’s cut of German classic “Das Boot” — are hoping to continue a year-long trend: cutting into the Hollywood majors’ share of B.O. revenues.

Already this year, click pics like Britain’s “Bean” and “The Full Monty” and France’s “The Fifth Element” have successfully crossed national borders, further giving U.S. pics some competition.

In Britain, local pics may end up accounting for a stunning 50% of B.O. revenues for the second half of the year.

In Germany, “Men in Black” easily tops the year’s B.O., but five of the top 10 pics are, for the first time in years, Euro-made.

Led by a string of comedies, Gallic pics may claw their way to an impressive 34% of their own market, with U.S. films clocking in with some 55%.

In addition to Benigni’s “Life Is Beautiful,” other homegrown comedies in Italy are helping push local pics toward 34% of the market; U.S. pics will likely slip from 74% to a staggeringly low 54%.

In Spain, the Hollywood majors have also lost ground this year, from 78% of the market to around 67%. Euro pics have picked up some of the slack, but local fave “Airbag” has blown away all comers, racking up the highest gross of any Spanish film ever.

Not that the Hollywood studios need worry all that much: The total box office across Europe is expanding, with multiplexing on a roll and promotional gimmicks luring moviegoers as never before.

Exhibs are betting that U.S. heavyhitters such as UIP’s latest James Bond installment “Tomorrow Never Dies,” Disney’s “Hercules” and Columbia/TriStar’s “My Best Friend’s Wedding,” will draw the Christmas crowds.

Following is a country-by-country rundown of the holiday B.O. battles in the five key Euro territories:

UNITED KINGDOM

Three British films are set to dominate the holiday season at the U.K. box office, crowning the best year in memory for local movies.

The release of “The Borrowers” (Dec. 5), “Tomorrow Never Dies” (Dec. 18) and “Spice World: The Movie” (Dec. 26) should guarantee that the British film industry ends the year with a bang.

Aside from the Bond movie (which is classified as a British film although it’s fully financed by MGM), Hollywood is saving its firepower for January, the month that in recent times has delivered the year’s biggest grosses. “Starship Troopers” opens Jan. 2, followed by “The Jackal” (Jan. 9) and “Titanic” (Jan. 23).

According to Daily Variety calculations, Brit pics have taken 45% of the box office since the opening of “Bean” in early August. Half of that is due to Fox’s “The Full Monty,” which bowed Aug. 17 but is still going strong.

Its gross so far of $70 million puts it second in the U.K. all-time list behind the $77 million earned by “Jurassic Park.” “Full Monty” is still a serious contender for Christmas box office coin, and the festive season may even push it past Spielberg’s dinosaurs if it can hang onto enough screens.

Christmas in the U.K. is the time for family films. Polygram opened “Borrowers” slightly early for the season, two weeks before the start of the school holidays, in order to avoid clashing with its own “Spice World” on Boxing Day, Dec. 26. But Polygram marketing chief Chris Bailey says he expects “Borrowers” to stick around well into February, whereas the Spice Girls movie is likely to be a two-week wonder.

“It will burn very brightly but won’t be a stayer, because all the fans will go in the first fortnight,” he says.

“Borrowers” is out with 400 prints (including 45 for Ireland), which is Polygram’s biggest U.K. release ever — until the opening of “Spice World” with 500 prints. The strategy is to put two prints of the Spice movie into every multiplex, to haul in the maximum gross in that vital first fortnight.

Given the size of the release, Polygram is spending a relatively modest $1.7 million on P&A, since the film will be flooded with free publicity from blanket newspaper coverage.

UIP is releasing “Tomorrow Never Dies” with 517 prints in 422 cinemas, occupying two or even three screens in every multi. With the Spice audience confined largely to young girls, the Bond movie looks certain to be the box office topper over the Christmas and New Year period.

The other movie that may draw some holiday crowds is Disney’s just-released “George of the Jungle” (Dec. 19).

But the big American contenders appear in January, when filmgoers are weary of the month-long orgy of family values and are looking for something a bit tougher and more grown-up. In 1997, the first week of January recorded the second highest takings of the year so far (with pics such as “Sleepers” and “Evita”.)

GERMANY

German exhibs are gearing up for what promises to be a bustling holiday season. Many Germans take vacation between Christmas and New Year’s, giving them plenty of time to go to the movies.

“Tomorrow Never Dies” and “My Best Friend’s Wedding” are among the likely Hollywood holiday hits. Disney’s “Hercules” and kid pics such as “The Borrowers” are also expected to do healthy business.

German-lingo “Comedian Harmonists,” which has been heavily promoted, and “Das Boot — Director’s Cut” are also set to fill theater seats. Exhibs are also looking forward to the post-Christmas season — especially to “Titanic,” which sails onto German screens Jan. 8.

Revenues are expected to reach 1.4 billion marks ($787 million), up from $738 million in 1996. Multiplex construction is picking up speed in Germany, with some 270 new screens having bowed in 1997.

“Men in Black” has sold over 7 million tickets in Germany, making it the blockbuster of the year. But Hollywood movies aren’t the only pics profiting from the moviegoing boom in Germany.

Only five of the top 10 movies of the past 12 months were U.S.-made. “Men in Black” and “The Lost World” took spots No. 1 and 3 on the chart, but Euro films held their own: British comedy “Bean” was No. 2, and French sci-fi pic “Fifth Element” the sixth-most-seen film in Germany in 1997. British-directed and U.S.-produced “The English Patient” was also a surprise hit, taking seventh place.

Homegrown pics are more popular in Germany than they have been in decades. The Til Schweiger starrer “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” came in fourth place on the top 10 list, with Helmut Dietl’s “Rossini” at No. 5.

German-lingo films released in the second half of the year have been less successful, but local pics claimed a market share of 17.3% in the first three-quarters of 1997.

FRANCE

French distributors and exhibitors alike are in a celebratory mood, as a powerful lineup of local and foreign pics is driving 1997 attendance up to a decade high. The signs are that ticket sales will be around 150 million, up from 136 million in 1996.

With the Dec. 17 launch of “Tomorrow Never Dies” and “Hercules,” circuit programmers were talking up “an excellent year.”

With the exception of the end-of-October All Saint’s Day holiday, the hottest box office period of the calendar is around Christmas, with distribs trying to roll pics out in November in the hope that they will have the legs to be still standing after the New Year.

“Most years, the health of the Christmas market depends on what the Disney film is doing,” notes Xavier Rigault, programming chief for the Pathe circuit. “This year we have films that are working in addition to ‘Hercules,’ so it’s definitely good news.”

If the 1996 releases provided meager fare for revelers, this year’s lineup, which kicked off on Nov. 26 with “Hercules” and Jean-Jacques Annaud’s “Seven Years in Tibet,” had pics poised to fight for screen space.

With a collective sigh of relief, however, distribs and programmers applauded the substantial efforts that the three main circuits — Gaumont, UGC and Pathe — have made in building multiplexes and upgrading other screens.

In addition, local fare is jostling with U.S. product for the audience’s attention. Philippe de Broca’s family-oriented swashbuckler “On Guard,” Alain Corneau’s cop thriller “The Cousin” and Ariel Zeitoun’s Gerard Depardieu-starrer “XXL” all unspooled in the run-up to Christmas.

“We’ve been very happy that French films which we hoped would come through, have done so,” enthused Stephane Parthenay, who programs the Gaumont circuit.

“It’s the sleepers that have been most encouraging,” noted Parthenay. Among them, a string of comedies, headed by “La Verite Si Je Mens,” “Le Pari,” “Didier” and “On Connait La Chanson,” as well as road movie “Western” and Robert Guediguian’s “Marius and Jeannette” topped the list. And then, of course, there was the year’s box office champ, “The Fifth Element.”

On the international front, Brit pics that clicked on their own turf have traveled well, with “Bean” and “Full Monty” grossing more than $16 million and $10 million, respectively.

And for exhibs, who have been crying out for distributors to give them heavyweight pictures during the summer months, the success of “Men in Black,” which opened in early August, was a major bonus.

ITALY

Coming on the heels of a fall season in which U.S. blockbusters were bested by homegrown and European releases, the crucial Christmas lineup is heavy on both imports and local contenders.

Top foreign contestants for Italy’s seasonal crown look to be “Hercules,” “Tomorrow Never Dies” and “My Best Friend’s Wedding” (which stands to gain from being the only major Hollywood comedy on the block this Christmas).

But these releases face stiff competition from local laughers, led by Roberto Benigni’s “Life Is Beautiful” from CGG. The actor-director plays a Jewish father in a WW II concentration camp, who shelters his young son by making believe the horrors of their daily life are part of a game.

Serving up their customarily broad brand of vulgar comedy for the lowbrow market, hitmakers Carlo and Enrico Vanzina are back with “Adrift in Time — The Adventure Continues” from Filmauro.

Less surefire but promising nonetheless is Medusa’s comic road movie “Three Men and a Leg,” directed by and starring TV and theater comedy team Aldo, Giovanni and Giacomo.

Providing at least one or two of these Italian entries clicks with national audiences, the market share for domestic productions looks to hit its loftiest peak in many years this season.

A raft of major releases such as “Men in Black,” “Batman & Robin,” “Air Force One” and “Con Air” substantially underperformed at Italian wickets, in a season when warm weather stretched through late October, keeping fall admissions down. Observers here are wondering if the national appetite for f/x-laden actioners is on the wane.

Italo entries that boosted the home share included “Ovosodo,” Paolo Virzi’s bittersweet comedy, and B.O. wunderkind Leonardo Pieraccioni’s romantic romp “Fireworks.” Coupled with the director’s megahit, “The Cyclone,” from last Christmas, the pair of pics snagged the top two spots for calendar 1997.

Leading the field for the fall, prior to the Christmas onslaught, were “Fireworks” followed by “Bean” and “The Fifth Element.” The last two titles have brought substantial hikes to the market shares for British and French films, respectively, making this the first time since the 1981-82 season that Euro productions have held the top three positions.

SPAIN

The Christmas holiday comes in the wake of two of the greatest upturns for Spain’s box office in a decade.

U.S. movies, dominant in Spain since World War I, saw their market share slide by a gigantic 11% over the first eight months of 1997.

But having enjoyed the healthiest growth rate of any major Euro country outside the U.K., Spain’s B.O. appears to be leveling off.

According to figures released this month by Spain’s Ministry of Culture, U.S. films in Spain hauled in $149.4 million, or 67% of Spanish box office, from January to August. Throughout the ’90s, the share for U.S. films has stayed pretty solid at 72% to 78%, the latter high being achieved in 1996.

Exhibs will be looking to December to halt the U.S. slide.

“It’s the most important month of the year for cinema-going,” says exhib Tomas Naranjo, general manager of Warner Lusomundo Cines de Espana. Last year, December accounted for 11% of total takings. Two of 1997’s Yuletide big-hitters — both from the U.S. — are already out of the gate: “Alien Resurrection” (released Nov. 28) and “Seven Years in Tibet” (bowed Dec. 5).

Other potential top Christmas titles, predicted exhibitor Enrique Vinas at Yelmo Films, should be “Tomorrow Never Dies,” “Home Alone 3” (both bowed Dec. 19) and “Titanic” (opening Jan. 9).

Indie Sogepaq Distribucion looks to offer two potential wild cards: “Spice World” and local pic “Open Your Eyes.”

Polygram, which co-owns Sogepaq Distribucion, will be putting a lot of weight behind “Spice,” with 150 prints.

The key question mark over “Eyes,” the second film by Alejandro Amenabar (“Thesis”), is if Spaniards will take to a such a demanding psychological drama at a time of normally fluffier festive fare.

Most exhibs see the U.S. slide as a temporary blip rather than a longterm setback. As in Italy, many lay the blame on a surfeit of by-the-numbers actioners.

“There have been too many, and all at the same time,” said Francisco Garcia, managing director of Barcelona’s Acec cinema circuit, which accounts for some 10% of total admissions in Spain.

Underperformers this year, exhibs said, include “Air Force One,” “Speed 2,” “Face/Off” and even “The Lost World,” the No. 1 title to date this year. Its $13.8 million gross was “good, but not that good,” complained one cinema manager.

Three 1997 standouts, said many exhibs, have been “Bean” ($8.2 million), “The Fully Monty” ($9.5 million and showing magnificent legs) and local pic “Airbag” ($8 million making it the top-grossing Spanish film of all time).

It’s no coincidence that all three qualify for Spanish screen quotas, which force exhibs to show one day of Euro pics for three days of non-European (read U.S.) fare. While in 1997 Spanish pics should nearly double their market share to 14% from 7% in 1994, non-Spanish Euro pics also boasted a healthy 19% share over the first eight months of this year.

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