Teutons prefer more staggered release of pix

There’s no pleasing some exhibs. After an all-time record frame in Germany — typifying bumper biz in many offshore markets — bookers were griping. The source of their ire: Watching “What Women Want” go head-to-head against “Hannibal.”

The victor, perhaps surprisingly, was the Mel Gibson/Helen Hunt starrer, although it should be noted that Ridley Scott’s gorefest bowed on 170 fewer screens. Driven by those behemoths plus lively holdovers “102 Dalmatians” and “Cast Away,” the Feb. 15-18 span generated 3.5 million ticket sales and $20 million at the B.O. — a Teutonic high, beating the September 1997 weekend when “Men in Black,” “The Fifth Element” and “Bean” reigned.

Full week results have not yet been calculated, but exhibs are confident they’ll stand as a record.

But programmers feel that in the long run, box office would have been better if the two films hadn’t, well, cannibalized each other. They say it was entirely logical for distrib Tobis to launch “Hannibal” immediately after its screening at the Berlin film fest, and point an accusing finger at Disney’s BVI, which holds German-speaking rights to “What Women Want.”

“BVI really should have released its pic two weeks before or two weeks afterwards,” one told Variety. “Everybody would have profited more.”

Similarly, in Austria, “Women” bested “Hannibal,” thanks to being on 26 more prints.

“Hannibal” demonstrated its potency against lesser competition elsewhere, emphatically commanding pole position in the U.K., ranking as an opening weekend record for UIP and the industry’s fifth-biggest ever, as well as a new high for a R-rated pic; Australia, setting new benchmarks for a February bow and any restricted-classification release; and Switzerland. The Anthony Hopkins-Julianne Moore starrer had a stirring soph session in Italy after posting the highest debut there ever by a U.S. pic.

All told, “Hannibal” devoured an estimated $30 million, elevating its cume to $37.2 million from just six markets.

U.K. tradesters said the public’s appetite for the cannibal saga was whetted by “The Silence of the Lambs” on national TV the week before the launch, and by “Manhunter” — the first pic to feature Lecter’s character — last week.

Meantime, the school holidays saw sizable turnouts for rookie “The Emperor’s New Groove” and the second laps of “The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle” and “Dude, Where’s My Car?”

“What Women Want’s” German preem was a personal best for Gibson, doubling “Ransom,” but its French entry was overshadowed by Gallic powerhouse “Verite Si Je Mens 2.” Thomas Gilou’s comedy centering on the lives and loves of a group of friends who work in Paris’ colorful garment district dipped just 28% in its second week, tracking just below “Taxi 2.”

Fielded overseas by Icon Intl., “Women’s” estimated cume is $80 million, spurred by its dynamite second turn in Italy and its third in Blighty.

The Italo market is in better shape than it has been for some time in a non-holiday period, with stayer “Meet the Parents” also holding up well, according to Rome tradesters. However the Robert De Niro starrer “Flawless” was a drag, while Clara Law’s Australian road movie “The Goddess of 1967″ met a dead end at 18 sites, as did Belgian cyber-relationships drama “Thomas in Love” at nine, despite its strong reception at last fall’s Venice fest.

“Chocolat” proved effective counterprogramming to the male-skewing “Hannibal” in Oz, and had a tasty bow in Brazil.

“Cast Away” hauled in an estimated $12.6 million in 31 markets, hoisting its cume to $135.1 million, buoyed by the Philippines’ fabulous $648,000 in eight days on 52, Korea’s $5.4 million in 20 days and Hong Kong’s $2.8 million in 29 days.

Jackie Chan starrer “The Accidental Spy” is winding its run in Asia with about $13 million in the till. Best results for Golden Harvest’s actioner (which Miramax bought for North America and the rest of the world) are Hong Kong’s $3.9 million, China’s $3.3 million, Taiwan’s $1.8 million and Singapore’s $1.3 million.

Boosted by the school vacation in Europe, “102 Dalmatians” earned $7.8 million, and its cume raced to $73.3 million from a beefy third outing in France and solid soph sessions in Germany, Spain and Austria.

After a potent preem in Japan, “Unbreakable” skidded, but it racked up a formidable $12.1 million in 12 days; its cume is $133.1 million. Lars von Trier’s “Dancing in the Dark” is still firing in Japan, drumming up a sparkling $17.7 million through its ninth weekend.

The spirited Spanish B.O. was sustained by holdovers led by “Vertical Limit” (foreign cume: $112.2 million), as “Almost Famous” continued its uninterrupted run of flops and “Gran Marciano,” featuring the cast of the local version of “Big Brother,” aroused lots of media interest but mostly yawns from the public.

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