Strong dollar, higher marketing costs plague tally

Overseas box office returns for 2000 look set to tank for the second year running. With final numbers due in today, distribs will be lucky to clear $6 billion, down 10% on last year’s $6.66 billion target and way short of 1998’s boffo $6.8 billion.

In an international marketplace plagued by depreciating local currencies, escalating marketing costs and a global exhibition slowdown, BVI defied the odds: The Mouse House is expected to close in on last year’s $1.32 billion record.

Individually, it has been a year of wildly fluctuating fortunes for some majors. In 1999, BVI, Fox, Warner Bros. and Universal each posted more than $1 billion in grosses outside North America.

In 2000, only BVI and Columbia TriStar reached that pinnacle.

A model of consistency, the Mouse House’s overseas arm crossed the billion-dollar threshold in late September for the sixth year in a row — an unrivaled feat. Sony’s foreign division hit that milestone Dec. 12 after notching a billion only once before, in 1997.

Offshore obstacles have taken much of the gloss off 2000 for the Hollywood studios. And execs don’t expect an improvement anytime soon.

“The international market became a lot tougher this year, and I think it will be tough next year,” said Scott Neeson, who was upped to prexy of 20th Century Fox Intl. in October after Jim Gianopulos ascended to co-chairman of Fox Filmed Entertainment.

The dollar didn’t help

United Intl. Pictures president-chief operating officer Andrew Cripps estimates that the strong dollar has wiped about 15% off his company’s worldwide grosses this year — principally due to devaluation in Europe.

Nevertheless, Cripps forecasts that UIP will wind up with $1.75 billion for the year, beating 1999’s $1.63 billion but shy of its 1996 record of $1.81 billion.

UIP’s estimated total breaks down to $650 million from Universal (a big dip from U’s $1.2 billion last year), $500 million from Paramount (a healthy rise from 1999’s $310 million), DreamWorks’ $400 million ($234 million) and MGM’s $150 million ($295 million), as well as $50 million from its own acquisitions.

Fox Intl. will end the year with about $720 million (down from $1.01 billion), Neeson said, noting some solid successes but nothing to match “Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace.”

WB Intl. execs are still looking over their holiday grosses, but based on their studio fiscal year total ended Nov. 15, they’re estimating a take of around $620 million.

Whatever the distrib’s final figure for 2000, it will be well below last year’s $1.07 billion. This year, Warner’s chalked up only one $100 million-plus hit overseas, “The Perfect Storm.” Its next highest grosser was “Pokemon,” which has taken in $87 million.

Amassing hits

Star-driven event pics grossed a ton of money abroad last year, in most cases eclipsing their domestic results more dramatically than ever before.

Eighteen pics have each amassed more than $100 million overseas this year. That’s a better result than last year, when 16 U.S. films surpassed $100 million, as did one Euro effort, “Asterix & Obelix vs. Caesar.” No foreign production released this year has clocked $100 million.

Overseas grosses for “Mission: Impossible 2″ ($330 million), “Gladiator” ($260 million), “American Beauty” ($218 million), “Gone in 60 Seconds” ($130 million), “The Beach” ($103 million) and “Hollow Man” ($118 million) were spectacularly higher than those pics’ respective domestic earnings. Add to that honor roll “Dinosaur,” which cruised past its domestic gross ($137 million) in mid-December and is on track to reach $200 million.

“With big star-driven and event films, you are almost guaranteed they will perform better overseas,” said Buena Vista Intl. exec veep Anthony Marcoly. “For those films, there is definitely a growing gap between the U.S. and international.”

Columbia TriStar prexy of worldwide marketing and distribution Jeff Blake noted: “In the U.S., in most cases you only have the opening weekend to establish a film or you are supplanted by another film. Overseas, due to the multiplex development of the past few years, you can space your films a little better.”

Among the few conspicuous underachievers, “Big Momma’s House” and “Nutty Professor 2: The Klumps” both fell way short of their domestic cumes. Black-themed comedies generally do not translate well overseas.

Talent muscle

Also contributing to the fatter upside for many films internationally is that some U.S. stars and directors have even more cachet abroad than at home.

Neeson is convinced Leonardo DiCaprio’s drawing power, coupled with helmer Danny Boyle’s rep, especially in the U.K., catapulted the offshore gross of “The Beach” more than 150% above domestic.

Blake contends that “Hollow Man” benefited from director Paul Verhoeven’s credentials and “amazing special effects, which needed no translation.”

Arnold Schwarzenegger’s overseas drawing power unquestionably propelled “End of Days” (a calendar ’99 release that spilled over into this year) to a handsome $135.4 million abroad, dwarfing domestic’s $66.9 million.

Indie flux

Miramax and Summit posted hearty gains in 2000, while New Line took a 26% loss.

Miramax’s 44% increase in 2000 provided a banner year for its overseas arm. Its final take was $360 million.

Cheers to “Scary Movie” (current foreign cume: $120 million), an excellent overseas marketing case study. Miramax overcame typical moviegoing obstacles in certain foreign territories with a blitzkrieg publicity campaign for the pic consisting of extensive screenings, well-chosen release dates and television interviews galore for the cast.

Topper Rick Sands was surprised at how well the pic performed in Latin America, specifically Brazil ($7 million) and Mexico ($6.5 million).

Summit fetched $258 million, up 29% from last year’s take of $200 million. Crown jewels consisted of “Sleepy Hollow” ($77 million in 10 territories), “U-571″ ($42 million) and 1999 holdovers “American Pie” and “The Blair Witch Project” each earning mid $20 million.

With Austin Powers on vacation, New Line only grooved to $210 million. The Mike Myers’ sequel pic raked in $104 million of the distrib’s $285 million in 1999.

The studio’s highest-grossing pics were “Final Destination” ($58 million), “The Cell” ($35 million) and “Magnolia” ($26 million).

Despite the downturn, worldwide prexy Rolf Mittweg is excited about 2001, when New Line will roll out the Robert De Niro/Ed Norton actioner “15 Minutes” and “Rush Hour 2.”

A shinier New Year

Taking the long view, DreamWorks Intl. prexy Jonathan Chissick said: “Exchange rates and rising marketing costs have always been the headaches of overseas distributors. What business boils down to is the picture itself.”

And there are many event pics filling out the 2001 booking calendars to get excited about.

UIP’s “Hannibal” and “Jurassic Park 3″ will have day and date bows with the U.S. (Feb. 9 and July 18, respectively). Fox’s “Planet of the Apes” and Disney’s “Pearl Harbor” are sure-fire contenders for the overseas market.

Oh, yeah, and some sci-fi pic called “A.I.” directed by a guy named Spielberg. Leave it to the master to dissolve any doldrums at the box office.

Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more