But 'Titanic,' Bond bode well for '98 B.O.

SYDNEY– The resurgence of indigenous films in Europe and Japan, the Asian economic meltdown and ailing performances by several majors took some of the gloss off the Hollywood companies’ theatrical revenues outside North America last year.

But late arrivals “Titanic” and “Tomorrow Never Dies,” which contributed only minimally to the ’97 tally, are gathering full steam abroad and will give the U.S. studios’ combined market shares a mighty boost in the first quarter.

Disney’s Buena Vista Intl. and Miramax, Sony’s Columbia TriStar, 20th Century Fox and Universal all soared to new heights overseas last year as the U.S. distribs’ B.O. receipts totaled $5.85 billion, a modest hike from the prior year’s harvest of $5.64 billion.

H’w’d growth marginal

The encouraging trend for the global film industry was that most foreign markets experienced heady growth in ticket sales and grosses. It’s just that Hollywood’s slice of the pie expanded marginally — at least until Pierce Brosnan’s latest Bond adventure and “Titanic” were unleashed.

Among the factors that took some of the limelight from U.S. distribs’ performances last year:

- The renaissance of filmmaking in such markets as the U.K., Germany, France, Italy and Spain, which saw national pictures command extraordinarily high B.O. shares last year.

- Breakout hits such as Gaumont’s “The Fifth Element” (which minted $200 million last year), Miramax’s “The English Patient,” Nippon animated blockbuster “Princess Mononoke” (which harvested $148 million in Japan) and Polygram’s “Bean,” which were chiefly fielded by indie distribs.

- Steep declines in revenues for Paramount, MGM and New Line and another flat result by Warner Bros., plus the virtual disappearance of Castle Rock, which had “Absolute Power” as its only meaningful B.O. contribution. That was only partly offset by the arrival of DreamWorks, whose sole overseas release, “The Peacemaker,” grossed $57.5 million last year. Most of that was generated by Universal, which has the bulk of foreign rights to the upstart major’s product.

- The Asian currency and economic crisis, which resulted in a 25% hit to the majors’ rentals from the region, according to Warner Bros. Intl. president Ed Frumkes. The effect has been more severe in the Philippines, where “Tomorrow Never Dies” has been tracking 106% up on “Goldeneye’s” business in local currency, but only 50% ahead when that’s converted into greenbacks; and in Malaysia, where the new Bond was 176% ahead in local coin, and 103% up in dollars.

Execs at the international arms of the majors don’t begrudge the soaring popularity of national films, viewing that as a catalyst to further B.O. growth. “The overseas markets are continuing to expand and the wealth is being shared,” Columbia TriStar Intl. exec VP Tony Manne said. “Thank goodness the local production industries are strong and improving in many markets, because that will only encourage more cinema building. The U.S. majors are not monopolizing the business.”

BVI on top again

BVI led the pack for the second consecutive year, clocking $1.253 billion — the third straight year in which its B.O. receipts have topped $1 billion. BVI president Mark Zoradi says nearly $800 million was derived from six blockbusters: “Ransom” ($146 million in the calendar year), “101 Dalmatians” ($144 million), “Hercules” ($134 million), “Air Force One” ($129 million), “Con Air” ($121 million) and “Face/Off” ($116 million).

Next came Col TriStar and Fox Intl., which each reached the billion-dollar mark for the first time. Sony’s heavy-hitters were “Men in Black’s” $323 million, “My Best Friend’s Wedding’s” $138 million and “Jerry Maguire’s” $116 million.

Fox hit paydirt with “The Full Monty” ($135 million), the “Star Wars” reissue ($116 million) and “Speed 2: Cruise Control” ($107 million).

U barely passes ’96 tally

Universal squeezed past its 1996 high of $909 million by the slimmest margin — $1 million — riding on “The Lost World: Jurassic Park’s” $382 million, “Liar Liar’s” $125 million and “Dante’s Peak’s” $111 million.

United Intl. Pictures, the foreign releasing arm of Universal, Paramount and MGM, lost some momentum due to Par’s tumbling revenues and to its handling just two new titles from MGM: “Tomorrow Never Dies,” which chipped in with a sensational year-end haul of $88 million, and “Hoodlum.” UIP’s revenues totaled $1.371 billion, down from 1996’s $1.813 billion.

Miramax Intl.’s receipts peaked at $330 million, a 112% jump on 1996’s $155 million. While that result trailed its domestic haul of $420 million, Rick Sands, Miramax chairman of worldwide distribution, points out that was due to differing release schedules and the fact that Miramax traditionally handles more films at home than abroad.

“The English Patient” grossed $152 million in foreign and “Scream” nabbed $68 million.

Domestic woes stunt WB

Warner Bros. Intl. was hampered by its domestic misfortunes, but Frumkes says six titles, including “Batman & Robin” ($130 million), “Space Jam” ($135 million) and “Mars Attacks!,” did better overseas than at home. Warner endeavored to contain marketing costs by having talent such as Arnold Schwarzenegger, Mel Gibson and Jodie Foster travel widely to generate free publicity for their films.

New Line Intl. had nothing to come anywhere near its 1996 blockbuster “Seven,” and president Rolf Mittweg is looking for an upswing this year with “Boogie Nights,” “Dark City,” “Wag the Dog” and “Lost in Space.”

Indeed, execs at all studios are ever-bullish about their 1998 lineups, although most agree that the World Cup soccer championships in France (June 10-July 12) will dent attendances in Europe and parts of Latin America, given soccer’s grip on TV viewers.

Countering the World Cup

The majors say it would be dumb to release male-oriented actioners during the World Cup, and they are searching for family and female-skewing fare as counterprogramming. That poses problems for exhibs, who will be short of product to keep their cinemas occupied, and for distribs.

Effectively losing four weeks’ playing time will “condense an already crowded summer time,” UIP exec VP Andrew Cripps said. “There will be a downturn (during the Cup race). We have to hope the rest of the year is very, very buoyant.”

Another challenge for rival distribs is to position their event films away from Sony’s “Godzilla.” Roland Emmerich’s epic is set for June 11 in Australia, mid-July in the U.K. and Brazil, July 11 in Japan (where Toho-Towa has rights) and France and Germany in September.

Among the other contenders in summer/early fall will be “Armageddon,” “Dr. Dolittle,” ” The Mask of Zorro,” “Saving Private Ryan,” “Small Soldiers,” “Snake Eyes,” “The Truman Show” and “The X-Files” movie.

Japan slips

While the majors’ rentals in each territory won’t be tabulated for some time, Japan appears to have slipped again from its usual pedestal of Hollywood’s most lucrative offshore market. That’s due partly to the ascendancy of homegrown product and to the weakening of the yen.

For Columbia TriStar, Japan was in lowly sixth place with $74.8 million in revenues, well below the U.K., in pole position at $120 million. But Manne notes Japan would have replaced Germany ($101 million) in the second position had “Men in Black” been released there earlier in the year. Japan ranked in the top spot for UIP (ahead of Germany, the U.K., Australia and France) and Fox, and at No. 2 behind Germany for BVI.

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