Homegrown fare dwarfed at Euro B.O.

Here’s the most telling factoid about European box office circa 2000: Warner Bros.’ hoary chiller “The Exorcist” scared up more money in Italy than any single local title.

Why is that meaningful? Because while Hollywood megapics rolled solid numbers across Europe over the past year, it was a dismal time for Euro-made fare.

Indeed, Britain’s “Billy Elliot” and France’s “Taxi 2″ were two of only a handful of local pics to produce hot numbers. And the biggest local pic in Germany was produced by Columbia TriStar.

Despite more multiplexes in Germany, new “designer” screens in Britain, cut-rate cinema passes in France, air-conditioning in Italy and a glut of movies from which to choose in Spain, the total box office take across Europe this year will barely match 1999’s performance.

And notwithstanding the ongoing efforts around the Continent to stimulate local production and create a Europeanwide film industry, local pics generally received a thumbs down from moviegoers this year.

“The current situation stinks,” said one disgruntled Italian exhib.

Hollywood, on the other hand, managed to field 18 pics this year that grossed more than $100 million abroad — including “Mission: Impossible 2,” “Dinosaur” and “Charlie’s Angels.” And much of that moolah came from the top territories across Europe.

Yet even the performance of U.S. fare left some Euro exhibs unimpressed.

The head of France’s exhib sector says that the year-on-year uptick at the wickets was hardly “a fabulous increase.”

Aside from the absence of a “Titanic,” he reckons that in a sea of 600 releases — compared with 350 five years ago — many films simply drowned.

Herewith a rundown of what happened in the top five Euro territories:

UNITED KINGDOM

British cinema admissions are on course for a healthy 3% increase to 143 million by the end of 2000.

Eighteen films topped the £10 million ($14.5 million) mark at the box office, up from 13 last year. Even more encouraging for the local industry, five of those — “Chicken Run,” “Billy Elliot,” “The Beach,” “Snatch” and “Kevin and Perry Go Large” — came from British producers.

Never before have five U.K. pics beaten the £10 million mark in a single year, pushing market share for local pics up close to 20%. And that’s not including Brit-directed blockbusters “Gladiator” and “American Beauty.”

On the downside, a huge number of Brit pics disappeared into a B.O. black hole, including some, such as “Honest,” “Jimmy Grimble” and “Purely Belter,” which were given strong marketing support.

“Toy Story 2″ gave Buena Vista Intl. its first-ever U.K. No. 1, although the $64 million gross couldn’t quite match last year’s $74 million for “Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace.”

Overall, U.K. admissions have been growing steadily, with only the occasional blip, since they hit their all-time low in the mid-1980s. That expansion coincides with the multiplex boom, which is still showing little sign of slowing. Seventeen new plexes opened in 2000, and the same number are scheduled for next year.

This year saw two particularly noteworthy debuts. Warner Village cut the ribbon on its mammoth StarCity 30-plex in Birmingham, the biggest theater in Europe by number of screens.

And UCI bowed the Filmworks in Manchester, a designer 20-screener aimed at upscale auds who are alienated by the neon clamor of the typical multiplex.

– Adam Dawtrey

FRANCE

If the French box office had an end-of-year report card, it would read, “Good — but could do better.”

Admissions are expected to be up 8% on last year, with almost 165 million tickets sold.

American movies maintained their box office supremacy. In the first 10 months, they won market share of 62% compared with 30% for French films, and the gap looks likely to widen by the end of the year thanks to “Dinosaur” and “Charlie’s Angels.”

Last year, the box office share for U.S. and French films was 56% and 31%, respectively, with British films “Notting Hill” and “The World Is Not Enough” eating into U.S. share.

A handful of French films distinguished themselves this year, including Oscar contender “The Taste of Others” and Dominik Moll’s darkly humorous “Harry, He’s Here to Help.” Popular hit “Taxi 2″ showed that the French could successfully turn their hand to Hollywood-style action blockbusters.

Even so, 2000 will fail to reach the dizzying heights of 1998 when “Titanic’s” 20 million admissions and a trio of French hits — “Taxi,” “The Visitors” and “The Dinner Game” — nudged ticket sales to 170 million.

“When you think how dynamic the sector has been, 8% is not a fabulous increase,” said Olivier Snanoudj, deputy director of France’s National Federation of Cinemas. “The performance of this year’s films has been disappointing.”

There’s also the saturation of the marketplace. “It’s not popular to say there are too many films,” said Snanoudj, “but the market does get clogged up with too many that are only released theatrically so that they can come out on video and be shown on TV.”

– Alison James

GERMANY

Despite a slow summer and a lackluster fall, Germany’s box office rose a bit over last year but still failed to meet the industry’s 200 million admissions target.

The slightly stronger revenues, which hit DM1.18 billion ($539 million) through Sept. 30, were spread among a greater number of releases. Add to that an increase in screens (4,741 compared with 4,469 the previous year), and on average, pics this year drew a smaller number of viewers per screen than they did in 1999.

The year’s biggest moneymaker was Constantin’s “American Pie,” which pulled in $31.2 million. Pic, which opened in January, “shows just how significant young viewers are to the market,” said one local exhib.

Pierce Brosnan’s third outing as 007 in UIP’s “The World Is Not Enough” fared nearly as well with $27 million, illustrating James Bond’s continuing popularity in Germany.

Tom Cruise’s own stint as a super secret agent in “Mission: Impossible 2″ helped turn the summer blockbuster into the third-most successful movie of the year with $24 million.

Local distrib Constantin enjoyed another hit with M. Night Shyamalan’s “The Sixth Sense,” which scared up $21.8 million. Company was the second-best performing distrib behind UIP so far this year.

Homegrown pics fared worse than last year, accounting for 13% of box office admissions.

The most successful Teutonic title of the year was Columbia TriStar’s “Anatomy,” starring Franka Potente, which grossed $10 million. Constantin continued its success on the local front with a couple of strong youth-oriented pics, pubescent comedy “Just the Two of Us” and teen drama “Crazy.”

Multiplexes continue springing up around the country — with 15 opening through September — bringing the total to 119.

– Liza Foreman and Ed Meza

ITALY

Despite a proliferation of new theatrical distributors and a significant increase in national screens, it’s been a dispiriting year at the Italian box office.

The commercially crucial fall months are down 25% on the same period in 1999, and unless the Christmas lineup performs miracles, this year’s annual tally looks to take a serious hit.

“The current situation stinks, to put it bluntly, and we’re all asking ourselves why,” said Andrea Occhipinti, head of arthouse stable Lucky Red and president of national distributors association Unidim. “What seems most evident is that the lion’s share of B.O. revenues is going to fewer titles whereas in previous years it was spread more widely.

“The Italian public has become more selective,” he added. “They are better informed and better able to identify the strong pictures in advance, which means they flock to those and ignore the rest. It’s become a much tougher climate.”

Opinions within the industry vary wildly as to the reasons for the current moviegoing slump, from the weak lineup of U.S. imports, with no “Titanic”-style blockbuster to galvanize the market, to the oversaturation on national TV of soccer matches, still Italy’s paramount passion.

But while U.S. entries generally lacked spark, Italian and Euro productions this year failed to step into the breach.

Of the top 10 titles for 2000, French thriller “The Crimson Rivers” is the only non-U.S. production. And even Warner’s dusted-off classic “The Exorcist” performed better in reissue than the year’s top homegrown earner.

Breaking a long-established trend, mainstream local comedies generally saw their fortunes fall at the Italian B.O., with the year’s best grosses for a domestic production instead earned by a gentle comedy-drama about a bored housewife going AWOL in Venice, “Bread and Tulips.”

In addition to that surprise sleeper hit, other releases that performed well include Miramax co-production “Malena,” period drama “Canone Inverso” and “The Hundred Steps,” Italy’s submission for the foreign-language Oscar, indicating an increasingly discerning appetite for Italian fare.

The one bright spot in Italy this year has been UIP’s success in challenging the long-standing aversion to launching major titles in the summer.

– David Rooney

SPAIN

Powered by the second-highest-grossing pic in Spanish history, “The Sixth Sense” ($22.8 million), local box office for 2000 should equal the all-time record set last year of 82.5 billion pesetas ($437 million).

Now for the bad news: Admissions could be slightly down on last year. Standing at 103 million for the first 10 months of 2000, only a 6% hike in the cost of cinema tickets allows this year’s B.O. to equal that of 1999.

Exhibs complain bitterly about the deluge of theatrical releases. Although B.O. remains stable, Spain’s exhibition park has increased by some 300 screens this year. And local pics have posted their worst results since 1996, nabbing just a 9.6% market share through October.

Spain has two digital TV platforms and — unlike in France — there’s no limit on the number of times that films can be shown on free-to-air TV. Broadcasters naturally prefer the films they buy to have had a theatrical release. The net result is that Spanish auds were treated to 397 first-run releases in 1999.

“Films run for fewer weeks, and the exhibitor’s share of revenues is hence less. And there’s hardly time to allow word of mouth to work,” complained Robert Bayon, sales director at the Estrella cinema circuit.

Industryites also predict a shakeout in Spain’s exhib sector, with its 3,377 screens.

“With revenues per screen decreasing, it’s almost inevitable that more of the older cinemas in Spain will close,” says Victor Arias, sales director at 20th Century Fox in Spain.

The poor performance of Spanish pics has aroused a bitter debate among industryites.

Some producers see it as temporary.

The coming year will boast new films from many of Spain’s hottest helmers, including Pedro Almodovar.

Spain’s producers union Fapae has taken a tougher line, however, accusing U.S. studios of block-booking pics with exhibitors.

– John Hopewell

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