Regional biz up 13%

MIAMI — Fueled by healthy economies and a continuing multiplex boom, the Latin American box office surged in 1997. But, in contrast to Europe, the region saw Hollywood’s supremacy remain untroubled by domestic hits in most arenas.

Revenues climbed in all major territories except Brazil. Mexico posted the most impressive gain, with B.O. soaring perhaps 50%.

Preliminary stats suggest the region’s top seven arenas — in descending order, Brazil, Mexico, Argentina, Colombia, Venezuela, Chile and Peru — showed an aggregate growth of 13% to $710 million, Daily Variety calculates.

Brazil figures tend to diverge widely by sources, but the trend in 1997 was almost certainly southward. UIP local manager Jorge Peregrino says a poor fourth quarter, largely due to Brazil’s Asia-triggered stock market crash, resulted in a drop for the year of around 10%.

Despite a production boom, few local pics made a big impact, and none ranked among the year’s top 20 grossers, industry organ Jornal de Video reported. Sergio Rezende’s historical “A Guerra dos Canudos” lured a robust 700,000 admissions, but that’s way behind the 2.6 million tix for “The Lost World: Jurassic Park” — which also ruled the B.O. roost in Mexico and Argentina.

In Mexico, ongoing economic recovery and the region’s biggest multiplex build-out — led by Cinemark and homeboys Cinemex — have made for dizzying growth. The country’s B.O. passed $200 million last year, at last beating out 1994’s pre-crisis total, Columbia TriStar marketing head Mauricio Duran said.

In a year when Mexican production sank to its lowest level since the 1930s, Hollywood’s domination was nearly total and looks to remain so in 1998. Top domestic pic “Cilantro y Perejil” (Recipes to Stay Together) was 30th for the year in capital city rankings compiled by film group Canacine.

Attendance climbed 20%, to around 26 million in Argentina, according to preliminary figures from national film institute INCAA. An institute official said exhibs routinely under report figures by about 20% to cheat on taxes, so the actual total may have been 30 million or so.

In Argentina, Village Roadshow, National Amusements, General Cinema, Cinemark, UCI and Hoyts all are frantically building out. The pace of new openings should pick up in 1998, suggesting a third straight year of solid B.O. gains.

Argentina witnessed by far the best performance of local product, which at last scored a number of triumphs after a flop-strewn 1996. Cop-themed TV spinoff “Comodines,” animated pic “Dibu, la pelicula” and thriller “La Furia” each drew a million or more spectators.

In metro Santiago, where Cinemark, Hoyts and National Amusements are jousting for punters’ pesos, tix sold soared from 3.2 million in 1996 to 4.2 million last year. The city accounts for the vast majority of Chile’s B.O.

The pan-Latino trend may not prove so upbeat in 1998, however. While the region’s economy grew by 5.2% in 1997, the knock-on effect of the recent crisis in Southeast Asia will likely slow growth for this year to 3.5%, according to Intl. Monetary Fund estimates.

Brazil, which accounts for nearly one-third of Latino theatrical biz, was hardest hit by the Asian shocks, and the state has taken steps to slow consumer demand, reducing the risk of devaluation. But continued rollout by plex builders including Cinemark, UCI and local players Ribeiro should keep aud levels buoyant, Peregrino said.

(Hans Ehrmann in Santiago, Beatriz Goyoaga in Buenos Aires and Marcelo Cajueiro in Rio de Janeiro contributed to this report.)

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