This month may top last year's beginnings

Indications are that many major offshore markets, with the notable exception of Japan, are enjoying a stronger start to the B.O. year than last January, buoyed by a slew of U.S. drawcards and a smattering of local offerings. Enriching coffers, the four leading pacesetters abroad — “Cast Away,” “Unbreakable,” “Meet the Parents” and “Vertical Limit” — rang up a combined tally of about $55.5 million last week.

The omens look awesome for “Cast Away,” which had dazzling debuts in seven territories, earning $17.9 million from 1,335 engagements. The Tom Hanks starrer ranked as the second-highest January preem of all time in Germany, behind 1998’s “Titanic,” UIP’s third-best bow ever in Italy and a personal best for Hanks in the U.K. and Ireland. The survivor saga saw similarly stellar launches in Austria, Switzerland and Sweden.

Boom in Blighty

U.K. grosses in the first two weeks of January were up nearly 20% over the same period last year, when “Sleepy Hollow” and “Angela’s Ashes” were the main contributors. Aside from “Cast Away,” attendances got a leg-up from “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’s” feisty soph session and a potent entry on only 27 screens by “Sexy Beast,” the tale of a retired villain who is forced back into a life of crime, toplining Ray Winstone and Ben Kingsley.

German tradesters say there’s a slight upward trend in ticket sales, but the rest of this month will need to maintain or improve momentum if it’s to match last year, when “American Pie” and “The Sixth Sense” were packing cinemas. Italo biz perked as “Cast Away” dislodged national champ “Ask Me If I’m Happy” and New Line’s demonic Winona Ryder thriller “Lost Souls” opened briskly.

Super power

The remarkably consistent “Unbreakable” conjured up $14.7 million, propelling its cume to $87.5 million. M. Night Shyamalan’s thriller notched the third-highest debut in history in Spain behind “Star Wars: Episode One — The Phantom Menace” and “The Sixth Sense,” and gave BVI its second-best ever in Holland, trailing “Sixth Sense.” The thriller’s European sensibility clearly is resonating effectively in that part of the world, and with Brazil and Japan ahead the pic seems destined to eclipse its domestic haul and reach about $130 million.

One Madrid booker expects nationwide receipts to wind the month slightly up on last year, driven by “Unbreakable,” Jan. 19 debutante “Cast Away,” “The Family Man” (Jan. 26) and lusty holdover “Meet the Parents.”

The Robert De Niro/Ben Stiller laffer embraced a merry $14.9 million from about 2,845 screens in 25 countries as its cume climbed to $74.3 million. “Parents” sired a socko $924,000 in five days on 166 in Brazil and $878,000 in six days on 90 in Argentina, plus lusty lift-offs in Greece, South Africa and Thailand.

‘Mortel’ life

Gallic tradesters were pleased with admissions in light of the usual post-holiday decline, and were pleasantly surprised by rookie “Mortel Transfert” (the tale of a psychoanalyst who falls asleep and wakes to find his patient has been murdered, it’s directed by Jean-Jacques Beineix, who has not had a major hit since “37.2 Degrees in the Morning” in 1986), and by the stamina of “Billy Elliot” in its fourth pirouette.

Early in its foreign trek, “Vertical Limit” is showing more heft than it did domestically and looks capable of hitting $100 million. Martin Campbell’s adventure roped in an estimated $8 million from just 10 territories, fueled by muscular bows in Mexico (Columbia TriStar’s third-biggest behind “Godzilla” and “Men in Black”) and South Korea and a lucrative run in Japan, where it’s amassed $28 million through its sixth weekend; cume stands at about $41 million.

Elated by the Australian bow of “What Women Want,” which recorded the industry’s fifth-best opening week and a record for local distrib Roadshow (topping “Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me”), one Oz booker believes January vacation business will overtake last year’s. The exhib rates “Charlie’s Angels,” “Coyote Ugly” and “Vertical Limit” as overachievers compared with the U.S., “102 Dalmatians” as a pro-rata performer and “The Grinch” as a conspicuous disappointment.

The Mel Gibson/Helen Hunt headliner has racked up a socko $1.4 million in 10 days in Greece, slipping just 15% after the first weekend, when it beat the likes of “Gladiator,” “Mission: Impossible 2″ and “Armageddon”; but its South Korean launch was overshadowed by “Vertical Limit.”

Disneysaurus rex

“Dinosaur” ascended to $206.2 million, now the sixth-highest animated pic of all time overseas, spurred in part by Japan, where it retained pole position for the sixth straight weekend. With $38.1 million in the kitty, the creature feature ranks as Disney’s highest-grossing toon in Japan, overtaking “Aladdin.”

In Japan, “Thirteen Days” has grossed 1.1 billion yen ($9.5 million) through its fifth weekend for distrib Nippon Herald, which rates that as satisfactory in a market that did not catch fire through the New Year vacation. Indeed, Nippon Herald estimates receipts at mainstream theaters were down 22% from the corresponding period last year.

“The Emperor’s New Groove” whistled up $307,000 in five days on 42 in Korea (level-pegging with “Pocahontas”) and has pocketed $1.5 million in three weeks in Brazil — both respectable figures considering its mid-level U.S. trajectory and the fact it isn’t getting optimum holiday playing time.

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