Int’l auds stagnant despite multiplexes

Euros yawn at American fare

The multiplex boom that swept across Europe at the beginning of the decade was hailed as just the thing to radically boost the region’s moviegoing habit.

Guess what? It hasn’t. Movie audiences have either leveled off or fallen over the last year in the major territories.

To make matters worse, American film distributors did not come up with anything resembling a “Titanic” this past year. They could congratulate themselves on clocking up a record 16 $100 million grossers abroad, but much else fizzled.

Aside from the success of the “Star Wars” prequel, the sleeper “The Sixth Sense” and the dozen other big grossers, Euros found most of the U.S. offerings tired or tepid.

As for homegrown efforts, the picture is at best mixed.

Britain could arguably lay claim to hits like “Notting Hill” and “Shakespeare in Love,” though these were handled by U.S. distribs, and the country also had its share of local flops.

In France –where the idea of a thriving national cinema underlies all entertainment industry policy — several ambitious projects, including Luc Besson’s take on Joan of Arc, failed to perform.

Local fare did not catch fire in Germany and Italy. The only Teutonic standout was cartoon feature “Werner,” while Italy had to rely on the re-release of “Life Is Beautiful” to bolster the B.O. share of the home team.

In Spain, Pedro Almodovar (“All About My Mother”) and Alex de la Iglesia (“Dying of Laughter”) were the only local names to come through with winners.

As for transnational success stories, only the French-German-Italian concoction “Asterix & Obelix vs. Caesar” managed any significant crossover appeal.

Here is a rundown of moviegoing trends in the five major Euro markets.

UNITED KINGDOM

LONDON — British cinema admissions, which fell in 1998 after a decade of growth, started off even worse in 1999. But the arrival of “Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace” and “Notting Hill” kicked off a revival throughout the summer. The momentum continued through the fall with the release of “The Blair Witch Project,” “The Sixth Sense,” “Tarzan” and “The World Is Not Enough.”

It now looks certain that 1999 will improve by at least 5% on the 1998 tally of 135 million.

Rising ticket prices mean the box office curve continues to grow, but there is concern from exhibitors that the underlying admissions curve is flattening just as more multiplex screens are opening.

For British films and local indies, 1999 was a year of marked improvement. Yet the two did not go hand in hand.

The big Brit pics — “Notting Hill,” “Shakespeare in Love,” “Little Voice” and “Waking Ned Devine” — were mostly handled by major U.S. distribs, while indies such as FilmFour and Pathe improved their rating mainly with American pics, such as “She’s All That” and “The Blair Witch Project,” respectively.

Box office share for Brit pics in the first 11 months was 18%, against 13% last year.

But a handful of bigger Brit hits masked the fact that 1999 also had more than its fair share of Brit flops. There were a few low-budget, indie-financed success stories — “East Is East,” “Waking Ned Devine,” “This Year’s Love” and “Human Traffic” — but they were the exception.

With roughly the same number of Brit films released in 1999 as in 1998 — around 70 — only 10 topped £2 million, compared with 15 last year, and only 14 topped £1 million vs. 19 in 1998. At the bottom end, there were nearly twice as many pics grossing less than £10,000 (11 against 6).

The market share of the five majors — UIP, BVI, Warner, Fox and Col TriStar — was down from 84% to 76%, but Fox was the only one that actually lost share, crashing from 31% to 15% despite having the top-grossing film of year in “Phantom Menace.”

The picture for the majors is muddied by the fact that Polygram, previously the market’s biggest indie, was transmogrified this year into a major as Universal Pictures Intl. UPI’s strong 8.4% showing brought the overall share of the Hollywood majors to 84% for the year.

Aside from the improved showings by FilmFour and Pathe, indies Alliance, Metrodome and Downtown also made small advances this past year.

Metrodome’s “Human Traffic,” the left-field Brit hit of the year, was the company’s biggest-ever grosser. Leading indie Entertainment consolidated its position with “Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me,” which delivered its best foreign performance in Blighty.

Stuart Boorman, chief booker at the UCI multiplex chain, said it’s becoming increasingly difficult to predict U.K. performance of a Hollywood pic on the basis of its domestic gross.

“We used to say that $100 million in the U.S. means £10 million (about $16 million) in the U.K., but that’s less and less the case. The audience is fragmented. We’re no longer mad on action. We like things that bring something new to the table. We don’t like standard potboilers.”

One booming niche is Bollywood movies. It’s a sign of the times that Warner Village is planning to set aside six screens in its soon-to-open Birmingham 30-plex for Indian movies.

— Adam Dawtrey

FRANCE

PARIS — After four years of steadily increasing cinema attendance, French box office slipped back in 1999. Now the industry is wondering whether the results are just a temporary downturn in an otherwise healthy market or if the alarm bells should be ringing.

Although the definitive figures won’t be released until early 2000, the Federation Nationale des Cinemas Francais (FNCF), which reps the majority of France’s exhibitors, is estimating attendance at 155 million in 1999, well down on 1998’s decade high of 170 million.

Optimists say the difference is there is no “Titanic,” which drew a cool 20 million moviegoers to Gallic hardtops in 1998. Without a similar megahit, 1999 was always going to pale in comparison. Factor out “Titanic” and the year’s results are still an improvement on the 150 million tickets sold in 1997.

Pessimists reply, however, that the really worrisome thing about this year is that a string of ambitious French projects failed to live up to expectations, including Gerard Oury’s comedy remake “Le Schpountz,” which died in August, Cedric Klapisch’s Warner Bros.-backed “Peut-etre” and Luc Besson’s “The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc.” Besson’s films average a $23 million gross, but his latest offering will be lucky to make $18 million.

Even the year’s top box office performer, the Gerard Depardieu starrer “Asterix and Obelix vs. Caesar,” didn’t hit producer Claude Berri’s confident predictions that 10 million French fans would watch the pic. As the year ended, the comedy had sold 9 million tickets.

“The jury’s out on this year,” comments Olivier Snanoudj at the FNCF. “There have been fewer big local hits than last year, but more French pictures selling over 1 million tickets. I think that’s the case across Europe, with the possible exception of Britain.”

The upside for the French is that local films held on to around 30% of the market, even though Gallic producers continue to avoid putting their pics into screens during the summer months, leaving the market totally in the hands of “The Matrix,” “The Mummy” and “Wild Wild West.”

U.S. films cornered some 60% of the market, much the same as in recent years.

The French performance is partly due to the fact that more local pics got distributed this year. Data for the first six months of 1999 shows 112 French films were released, a whopping 44% increase on the same period in 1998.

— Michael Williams

GERMANY

BERLIN — Local pics are on the road to recovery after a tough year in 1998.

In the first nine months of 1999, the market share of German pics rose to 14% compared with 10% the previous year.

The French-German-Italian co-production “Asterix & Obelix” topped the local hit list, drawing in over $18.6 million, landing it in the No. 6 spot of top films of the year.

After 1998’s lack of Teutonic animation, which was partly to blame for the poor performance of German films last year, hit cartoon character “Werner” made a big comeback, pulling in $15.1 million for Constantin Film, placing it at the top of the heap of local productions.

Dubbed as the first film about the fall of the Berlin Wall, “Sonnenallee,” which was released to coincide with the 10-year anniversary of the Wall’s demise, was one of several surprise hits. Pic has taken in $10 million to date.

As the year progressed, the box office picked up speed. Overall admissions until May this year showed a decline of 16% on the previous year, which boasted runaway hit “Titanic.” But by the end of the third quarter, admission figures were only 3% down from 1998.

Older multiplexes, which opened between 1990 and 1997, showed a decline of 13.5% in admissions, while plexes that opened in 1998 and 1999 were credited with the overall increase in multiplex admissions. Those admissions were up by 10% on average through September, according to a report issued by the national film subsidy board, the Film Foerderungs Anstalt.

Meanwhile, American pics continued to dominate business. Through November, there were 11 U.S. pics boasting more than 3 million visitors, compared with eight in the whole of 1998. The top-ranked pic through November was “Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace” with a gross of $52 million.

— Liza Foreman

ITALY

ROME — While the Italian theatrical market has posted steady growth over the past three years — with the “Titanic” powerhouse pushing annual admissions for 1998 to 120 million — that upswing ground to a halt in 1999.

Both the spring and fall seasons fell short of the previous year’s results, and despite continued talk of extending release patterns into summer to counter the country’s customary warm-weather dry spell, national theaters from June through August remained as empty as ever.

Figures calculated by B.O. monitor Cinetel for the first three quarters of 1999 clocked the admissions total at 43 million, down by 7.5 million, or 15%, on the same period in 1998.

Grosses for the nine-month stretch plummeted by $37.8 million, signaling the absence of a real event picture capable of pulling mass audiences back into theaters.

Industryites point to a strong holiday lineup — BVI’s “Tarzan” and “Inspector Gadget,” UIP’s “The General’s Daughter,” Warner’s “The Iron Giant” and Medusa’s “Runaway Bride” — but the final annual total will likely fall far behind last year’s tally.

Perhaps the most significant trend in the Italian marketplace this past year was the strong returns generated by upscale fare that in the past might have captured only a niche audience.

Top performer outside of the final holiday tally was Universal’s “Notting Hill,” which delivered the kind of knockout results usually associated with popular local comedies rather than sophisticated romantic imports.

The Oscar effect propelled “Shakespeare in Love” to similarly stellar heights, while “The Sixth Sense” continued to perform strongly through December, with total receipts romping past those of “The Mummy” and “Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace.”

Indeed, the Fox blockbuster significantly underperformed in Italy, remaining largely a youth phenomenon without the impact on older audiences that it wielded in other territories. Release at the end of school vacation also may have been a little tardy to milk the pic’s full potential.

With the Oscar victory and foreign success of Roberto Benigni’s “Life Is Beautiful” in 1999 made it the all-time top-grossing Italian production, Italian cinema enjoyed its most substantial international profile in some time. But despite the morale boost to the local industry, B.O. results for homegrown product remained dismal.

Only two local productions made it into the top 10: comic trio Aldo, Giovanni & Giacomo’s Christmas hit “That’s Life” and the reissue of “Life Is Beautiful.”

Elsewhere the box office picture was bleak.

The year’s auteur efforts almost universally were snubbed, and genre efforts fizzled. Even the only consistently successful staple of national product — comedies — were unable to lift the overall market share for indigenous films, which in the strategic fall-through Christmas season dropped to 16%.

Unsurprisingly, given these B.O. blues, national film production also continues to flounder. The total number of features produced this year will probably fall short of the 100 mark for the sixth consecutive time.

While the annual feature tally fails to show any growth, investment in film production continues to climb — up by $41 million to total $240 million in 1998 — suggesting that budgets are ballooning disproportionately to what most pics are earning in the domestic marketplace.

— David Rooney

SPAIN

MADRID — It was not only a lackluster year at the Spanish box office but also a worrisome one, too — for Spanish distribs, exhibs and Hollywood.

Spain’s B.O. seems to be leveling off, and audiences are tiring of stale U.S. fare, despite frantic cinema construction.

Official stats run only through August, but, per local exhibs, when the final figures are in, they should show total admissions roughly on par, or a touch higher, than 1998, when Spanish cinemas sold some 112 million tickets.

Total B.O. gross may edge up, from the previous year’s $407 million, but largely because of higher ticket prices.

What has changed dramatically over 1999 is the number of cinema screens in Spain: up 10% to 3,082 by August.

But that’s hardly a cause for Christmas cheer for Spanish distributors and exhibitors.

“What worries me most about the latest B.O. trends is that while the number of screens has gone up in Spain, you can’t say the same about the number of spectators,” says Spanish exhibitor Roberto Bayon at Circuito Estrella.

Bayon points to one factor to explain Spain’s so-so 1999 — mediocre titles from the U.S.

“The first half of the year was dire,” says Bayon. Though the second half picked up, powered by “The Phantom Menace,” Bayon sees a strong turn-of-the-millennium rally, led by “Tarzan” ($5.4 million in 10 days).

The bright spot for 1999 was the performance of Spanish films on home turf.

Boosted by Pedro Almodovar’s “All About My Mother” ($7.4 million) and Alex de la Iglesia’s “Dying of Laughter” ($6.4 million), admissions for local pics rose by a massive 40%, compared with the same period of 1998, to 6.7 million over the first eight months.

Strong perfs by Jose Luis Cuerda’s “Butterfly’s Tongue” ($4 million), Mateo Gil’s “Nobody Knows Anybody” ($2.7 million after 17 days) and “Sobrevivire” from directorial duo David Menkes and Alfonso Albacete, should see Spanish films holding on to around a 15% market share for 1999.

“The Spanish cinema has improved across the board, from planning and production to marketing: The campaign for ‘Nobody Knows Anybody’ was exemplary, for instance,” enthuses Bayon. “And Spanish pics are now receiving powerful financing from TV stations in Spain.”

In contrast, “You can see audiences tiring of U.S. pics, especially their storylines — they’ve seen it all before.”And exhibitors are worried that if 1998 saw the ” ‘Titanic’ effect” and the Spanish B.O. received a forceful leg up thanks to “Menace” in 1999, there doesn’t seem to be a obvious mega-hitter for 2000.

–John Hopewell

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