Hot rocks heat summer o’seas

'Godzilla' lost in Japanese translation

So here’s what we’ve learned at the foreign box office this summer: Bruce Willis and a meteor is bigger than Steven Spielberg and a meteor, and even Roland Emmerich shouldn’t mess with a national icon in Japan.

These were some of the more intriguing developments from the summer B.O. season abroad, which yielded a few surprising results in a generally lucrative frame.

Biz in some territories did not match last summer’s, when “Men in Black,” “The Lost World: Jurassic Park” and “Batman & Robin” were packing cinemas. And some Euro exhibs blame distribs for sitting on the sidelines during the monthlong World Cup soccer tourney in France.

Still, a batch of U.S. films released abroad this summer are on track to match or comfortably exceed their domestic trajectories.

Hollywood’s surging fortunes are typified by Buena Vista Intl., which is on a roll after a quiet first half, as well as United Intl. Pictures and Columbia TriStar Intl.

When the figures are tabulated this week, BVI execs expect August B.O. revenues to rank as a company record for that month, powered by “Armageddon” and “Six Days, Seven Nights.”

UIP’s rentals were up by 19% in the second quarter, and execs say it’s been an excellent summer, driven by “Deep Impact” — frequently referred to in the foreign media as a “Spielberg film,” since he exec produced it, although Mimi Leder helmed it — sleeper “Sliding Doors” in the U.K. and Australia and “The Man in the Iron Mask” in Japan.

Columbia TriStar’s rentals in the first half were down 21% from last year, but the distrib has since closed the gap with “Godzilla.”

And all bets are on “Armageddon” in the clash of the meteors battle abroad; Tough-guy Willis in “Armageddon” is certain to top “Deep Impact,” exec produced by Spielberg.

Unleashed in May before the World Cup, “Impact” has eclipsed the domestic take of $140 million, and seems destined to top out at about $190 million.

The Paramount/DreamWorks co-production registered strongly just about everywhere except France, where exhibs say it suffered from being released right after the Cannes fest, when the local media were preoccupied with the festival’s competition contenders.

The ban on flogging films on Gallic TV hurt, because “Impact’s” special effects sequences could not be highlighted, UIP believes, and it posted a modest $6.9 million.

“Armageddon” has amassed $17.2 million after just three weeks in France and $162.9 million internationally. Still to crash into Japan and Italy, and showing great resilience, it appears to have sufficient fire-power to reach $250 million worldwide.

Willis’ foreign B.O. clout unquestionably has added another dimension to a film that some critics and tradesters rated as inferior to “Deep Impact.”

“Willis is about as big as they come internationally, up there with Tom Cruise, Schwarzenegger and Tom Hanks,” one U.S. distrib comments. “Overseas, his films significantly outperform their domestic levels.”

More spending?

A rival distrib contends “Armageddon’s” results are due partly to BVI’s willingness to shell out twice as much ad-pub coin as his company usually ponies up for major releases.

That’s disputed by BVI senior VP Anthony Marcoly, who says, “We looked at the spending levels on other blockbusters, such as ‘Men in Black’ and ‘Independence Day,’ and spent to those sorts of levels — nothing more aggressive than that. I’m sure (Sony) spent more on ‘Godzilla.’ ”

“Godzilla” smashed industry and company opening records for Columbia TriStar in a bunch of territories, then often tumbled by 50%-60% in the second week as word of mouth spread.

But the mutant monster has done extraordinarily well in Latin America (witness Mexico’s $12.4 million, Brazil’s $7.5 million and Argentina’s $6.1 million), while Australia’s $7.9 million is roughly pro rata with the U.S.

(Aussie distribs say big films should typically gross the equivalent of 10% of their domestic totals in Oz dollars.)

In Japan, “Godzilla’s” $33.1 million tally is not overly impressive, and it’s been humbled by “Deep Impact’s” socko $45.2 million.

Columbia TriStar Intl. exec VP Tony Manne says the Japanese results are disappointing for both dubbed versions and the subtitled prints — suggesting the problem lies with the film, not in how it’s translated.

Manne says there has not been time yet for a post-mortem discussion with distrib Toho. But others say Japanese auds resented the Americanization of their beloved icon, criticizing differences between Emmerich’s creation and the original character.

The last outing in Toho’s “Godzilla” series, “Godzilla vs. Destroyah” (which cost a fraction of Sony’s version), grossed a very good 3.5 billion yen ($24.8 million at the current exchange rate) in 1995.

However, all of continental Europe stretches before “Godzilla,” and last weekend, the lizard bowed with $3 million in Spain. It could conceivably climb to $250 million.

Columbia TriStar has extra marketing hooks for Emmerich’s extravaganza in the director’s native Germany and in France, courtesy of co-star Jean Reno.

“It’s been a good summer, but I’m more interested in the September-October-November playing time in Europe,” Manne says.

‘Black’ memory

“Some movies do very well in summer. ‘Men in Black’ was a sensation during the summer last year, especially in France, but in markets like Scandinavia, I wish we had waited until the fall. Some films need audiences to think about them, whereas we attracted more kids than adults.”

There are no problems with demographics for “Mulan,” which is tracking ahead of the last three Disney animated films in Latin America and Asia.

A fall release in Europe, Japan and Australia, “Mulan” seems assured of overtaking “Hercules” (which did $151.6 million) and could catch “Pocahontas’ ” $203.7 million, and maybe “The Hunchback of Notre Dame’s” $224.5 million.

The fourth “Lethal Weapon” installment seems likely to hit $165 million-$170 million, matching its predecessor’s tally six years ago.

Warner Bros. Intl. president Ed Frumkes calculates he could have added another $25 million to “Lethal 4” if ailing currencies in Asia, Australia and other markets had stayed as robust as they were in 1992.

Frumkes says it’s hard to measure the benefit the film may have had in Chinese-speaking territories from the presence of Jet Li as the kung fu fighting villain, since revenues from that region have tumbled due to exchange rates.

Few tradesters outside the Fox camp predicted “Dr. Dolittle” to do runaway business in the U.K and Australia. Peter Cody, programming chief at Australia’s Greater Union, credits the Oz success to Eddie Murphy’s star power and the smart release date, which positioned it as the sole family offering.

Cody says trading at his circuit in July was marginally up on last year (when “Lost World,” “Batman & Robin,” “Liar Liar” and “Bean” were in their prime), and August was much better.

“The X-Files” is spooking up healthy grosses in markets where the TV series is popular, and in those where it’s either not aired or not well-known.

Fox Intl. president Jim Gianopulos says the paranormal saga has the advantage of unspooling in markets where the TV series runs behind the U.S., thus “adding to the level of intrigue for the fans.” In non-“X-Files” territories it’s simply viewed as a special-effects sci-fier that stands alone.

Yank imports have not totally dominated foreign wickets in the hot-weather season. Take Toho’s Nippon animated click “Pocket Monsters,” which has outgunned “Godzilla” in Japan, racking up $40.4 million.

Chinese-lingo actioner “The StormRiders” gave co-producer Golden Harvest a sorely needed B.O. success in Hong Kong, mainland China, Malaysia and Singapore.

Spanish auds have flocked to sexy local comedy “Cha, Cha, Cha,” while long-running French hits “The Dinner Game” and “Taxi” on home turf stood up remarkably well to the competition.

European exhibs have different verdicts on the summer, depending largely on the product that was available.

Cup half empty

“This summer has been a struggle with a lack of big movies during the World Cup and, most recently, some very hot weather in the south of England,” says Tony Giddings, booker of the U.K.’s Odeon circuit.

July ticket sales in Blighty were off 11% on the prior year after a 9% jump in the first six months, which clocked 69.1 million ducats — the highest since 1974.

In Germany, attendance at some of the Cinemaxx chain’s multiplexes climbed by 10%-20% in July and August, according to spokesman Thomas Schulz.

Germany’s second-largest chain, Cinemaxx had the perfect answer to the World Cup: The exhib filled many of its theaters by screening Cup matches.

But Giddings and other overseas exhibs are extremely bullish about the fall, when audiences will be served such treats as “Saving Private Ryan,” “The Truman Show,” “There’s Something About Mary,” “The Mask of Zorro,” “A Perfect Murder” and “Ever After.”

(Miriam Hils in Berlin and Lee Simkins in London contributed to this report.)

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