Local tastes diversify, but H'wood fare still tops

In 2001, local Euro films managed to make themselves heard over the “Shreks” and “Pearl Harbors” coming out of the Hollywood studios.

In France, home-grown pics even muscled American fare out of the top of the top earners list. In Italy, moviegoers discovered that local hits can go beyond broad comedies.

But despite the Euro roar, films with transatlantic origins captured auds across the Continent: Warner Bros.’ “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone,” with its all-Brit cast and shooting location — and an American director — was a world-beater, while “Bridget Jones’s Diary” (London-set, Brit helmer, American star) was a surprise blockbuster in almost all Euro markets.

And box office was up in almost every Euro territory, giving exhibs and distribs a nice year-end holiday glow.

United Kingdom

With admissions up nearly 8% through November, and “Lord of the Rings” expected to deliver a Christmas bonanza, it’s been a strong year for U.K. cinemagoing. Ticket sales are predicted to reach 152 million by the end of December, against 143 million in 2000.

But whether it has been a good year for British movies — well, that depends on your definition of British.

If you believe that Hollywood-financed films “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone,” “Bridget Jones’s Diary” and “Captain Corelli’s Mandolin” qualify as local films (and Variety does), then market share for Brit pics stood at a healthy 18% up to Dec. 9.

“Potter,” with a $63 million gross and rising, and “Bridget,” which finished at $61 million, were ensconced comfortably as the top two films of the year. “Corelli,” which flopped everywhere else, earned a solid $13.8 million in Blighty.

But strip those three out, and British movies took a truly pathetic 4% of the box office in 2001. It’s a stark illustration of the extreme polarization between success and failure for U.K. filmmaking at the local box office.

So why should the three blockbusters be included?

All were developed by British companies from Brit books, and made by British producers. The wholly local cast of “Potter” was offset by its American writer and director, while the presence of Renee Zellweger (playing English) and Nicolas Cage (playing Italian) in “Bridget” and “Corelli,” respectively, was counterbalanced by Brit directors and a largely Brit supporting cast.

As such, they represent the kind of Anglo-Hollywood hybrid that is a hugely important part of the British film industry. It’s a sign of success, not failure, by U.K. producers that they can attract such big bucks and big names from Hollywood.

Inspection of the U.K.’s box office top 20 reveals that this hybridization is starting to spread successfully to other countries, too.

Amid the usual animated kid pics, sequels and franchises, there’s “Moulin Rouge,” an Australian studio pic with a $26 million gross in the U.K., almost half its Stateside takings. Spain’s “The Others” has broken through $15 million in Blighty and is still rising.

And in the same hybrid category, although in a different language, there’s Sony’s “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” with its $14 million gross in Britain. “Amelie” proved this foreign-lingo success was not a fluke by reaching $6 million in the U.K.

“It’s encouraging that the obvious tentpole pictures have tended to hit the mark this year, but what’s been interesting is the over-achievement of films that require audiences to make tougher choices,” says Daniel Battsek, managing director of Buena Vista U.K.

The bad news for the local industry is how few smaller Brit pics registered any B.O. presence.

“Enigma,” not itself a cheap film, was the fourth-place local effort, with $6.9 million, followed by “Mike Bassett: England Manager” ($5.2 million), and “The Parole Officer” ($4.8 million).

The remaining 50 or so Brit pics released in 2001 must all be regarded, to a greater or lesser extent, as flops. Among the most egregious were FilmFour’s heavily marketed “Lucky Break” ($1.8 million) and Pathe’s “The Claim” ($312,000), the latter an example of how hybridization can go horribly wrong.

Nor was there any chance for critically praised low-budgeters to make their voices heard above the thunder of the blockbusters. Sandra Goldbacher’s “Me Without You” ($155,000), Saul Metztein’s “Late Night Shopping” ($152,000) and Stephen Frears’ “Liam” ($91,000) all deserved a wider audience.

– Adam Dawtrey

Germany

Germany’s box office saw an impressive 15% boost this year, thanks in large part to Michael Herbig’s locally produced Western spoof “Manitou’s Shoe.” The total B.O. number is expected to go up when final “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” and “Lord of the Rings” tallies are counted.

In addition to “Manitou,” a number of other home-grown efforts have done their part to increase the market share of Teutonic titles by 5% to 18%.

The first nine months saw a 56% increase in the number of viewers going to see local productions; with 21.4 million viewers, German films earned $109 million as of October.

Among U.S. pics with strong outings were “What Women Want” ($35 million), “American Pie 2″ ($30 million), “Cast Away” ($29 million) and “Pearl Harbor” ($28.5 million).

“Harry Potter” still trailed “Manitou’s Shoe” with nearly $40 million at mid-December, but quickly became the biggest U.S. movie of the year.

Still in the top 10 after 21 weeks, “Manitou” has raked in some $53 million so far and has become Germany’s biggest moneymaker ever.

“Manitou,” in which Herbig has a dual role, also benefited from Herbig’s own popularity. The comedian’s TV skit-driven laffer, “Bully Parade,” has a huge following here.

Pic joined exclusive club of box office winners like “Titanic,” “The Lion King” and “Pretty Woman” in surpassing the 10 million admission mark.

Warner Bros.’ locally produced “The Little Polar Bear” scored big among tyke viewers; animated pic, co-produced by Berlin-based Rothkirch/Cartoon-Film, has garnered almost $10 million since it opened Oct. 4.

Constantin enjoyed another hit with Dennis Gansel’s teen comedy “Girls on Top” (Maedchen Maedchen), sort of a female take on “American Pie” about three sexually active 18-year-olds desperately looking to have an orgasm. Pic scored nearly $9 million following its March 29 start.

Constantin had more buoyant biz with its updated version of Teutonic kiddie classic “Emil and the Detectives,” which earned $6.4 million; pic was released Feb. 22.

Critical praise and press hype about its controversial subject matter — a group of civilians agree to play guards and prisoners as part of a research project — not only helped Oliver Hirschbiegel’s “The Experiment” make almost $9 million at the box office, but also convinced Germany’s Federal Film Board to nominate the pic for the foreign-lingo Oscar.

Senator had another modest hit with Lars Buechel’s “Now or Never” (Jetzt oder nie), a comedy about three old ladies who plan a bank heist; pic, released Dec. 14, 2000, pulled in $6 million.

– Ed Meza

France

Thanks to a flurry of home-grown successes lead by Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s “Amelie,” local fare upped its market share by more than a third to 40% in 2001.

In contrast, the U.S. share of the French box office nose-dived by 10% to about 50%.

While overall ticket sales soared to more than 180 million, all of the surplus went to French fare — with American pics actually earning fewer box office francs than in 2000.

“Amelie,” Jeunet’s uplifting tale of a Parisian waitress on a mission to improve the lives of others, was the local hit of the year, notching up more than 8 million ticket sales.

But “Amelie” wasn’t the only French smash.

“La Verite si je mens 2″ (Would I Lie to You 2), Thomas Gilou’s sequel to the hit “Would I Lie to You?,” came a close box office second with 7.8 million ticket sales, and earned the distinction of bettering the opening week gross of Warner Bros.’ “Harry Potter.”

France’s box office bronze also went to a Gallic pic, Francis Veber’s gay-themed laffer “The Closet,” which notched up more than 5 million ticket sales, as did Christophe Gans’ fourth-placed actioner “Brotherhood of the Wolf.”

Because of their late December release dates, “Harry Potter” and “Lord of the Rings” won’t hit the top of the Gallic B.O. in 2001; therefore, DreamWorks’ “Shrek,” trailing in fifth place, was the top-selling U.S. pic of the year with 3.9 million admissions. It was closely followed by “Planet of the Apes”, “Unbreakable” and “Bridget Jones’ Diary.”

Big U.S. movies that fared badly include the Tom Hanks starrer “Cast Away” as well as Spielberg’s “A.I. Artificial Intelligence,” “Jurassic Park III” and “Final Fantasy.”

Surprise flops included the Miramax Juliette Binoche starrer “Chocolat,” causing the minimajor’s co-chair Harvey Weinstein to memorably upbraid local distributor Jean Labadie at the Cannes Film Festival.

The French film industry also got it wrong some of the time.

Gaumont’s English- language remake of Gallic smash “Les Visituers,” “Just Visiting” (1.2 million), was undoubtedly the year’s costliest flop, but other films that were disappointments included the Christophe Lambert starrer “Vercingetorix,” the Gothic thriller “Vidocq,” Olivier Dahan’s not-quite-for-kids “Little Tomb Thumb” and the unlikely French remake of the U.K. hit comedy series “Absolutely Fabulous.”

But fired up by an exceptional year for French pics, the Gallic production machine is now in overdrive, with a batch of big-budget movies in the pipeline that will prove stiff competition for U.S. fare again in 2002.

The contest gets under way almost immediately, with the January release on a record 950 screens — the biggest number in French exhibition history –of the Claude Berri-produced blockbuster sequel “Asterix and Obelix: Mission Cleopatra,” helmed by Alain Shabat.

Later in the year, Luc Besson’s Europa will unleash the comedy actioner “Taxi 3,” second sequel to the French box office’s highest earning movie of 2000, while “18 years Later,” Colline Serreau’s followup to the original “Three Men and a Baby,” will be another sequel for which there are great expectations.

– Alison James

Italy

The big news at the Italian box office in 2001 was the consolidation of a trend that became visible the previous year: A willingness on the part of local audiences to embrace homegrown features.

Traditionally, only mainstream Italian comedies have figured among the year’s top-grossing pics.

However, a look at the highest earners for 2001 through December reveals not only comic trio Aldo, Giovanni & Giacomo’s smash “Ask Me If I’m Happy” in the top 20, but also Gabriele Muccino’s “The Last Kiss,” Ferzan Ozpetek’s gay-themed drama “Ignorant Fairies” and Nanni Moretti’s sorrowful examination of bereavement, “The Son’s Room.”

Compared to the 60% slice of revenues that U.S. imports continue to account for, the 18% market share of Italian productions and co-prods through December seems trivial. But the vastly increased profile of intelligent, well-produced local fare attests to a significant shift in national tastes.

Box office overall is showing signs of good health with a 7% increase registered by the end of November against the corresponding period in 2000.

And the type of films breaking out indicates a market sufficiently diversified to accommodate both commercial heavyhitters and more upscale fare.

Alongside mainstream entries such as “Hannibal,” “Meet the Parents,” “What Women Want” and “Cast Away,” the year’s highest earner to date, releases that in the past might have appealed to a niche aud — “Bridget Jones’s Diary,” “Chocolat,” “The Others” and “Billy Elliot” — have cleaned up in theaters, giving the blockbusters a run for their money.

“When films like ‘Bridget Jones’ or ‘American Beauty’ start earning $15 million or more in Italy, becoming popular hits and registering the same success in outlying multiplexes as inner-city theaters, then it’s clear the market is very sound,” says Ernesto Di Sarro, who heads upstart distrib Nexo.

Even exclusive arthouse items are finding success: Iranian pic “Kandahar,” the bow of which coincided with the first U.S. attacks on Afghanistan, pushed the drama’s gross to an astonishing $4.5 million for distrib Bim.

The performance of “Bridget Jones” and “Billy Elliot,” among others, has boosted the market share for Brit pics this year to a robust 11%, while French imports (excluding co-prods with Italy) scored a solid 5%, driven by hits such as “The Brotherhood of the Wolf” and “The Closet.”

One curious anomaly: While grosses for “Shrek” and “Chicken Run” were by no means meager in Italy, they were below par compared to most other territories. Following similar results for earlier computer-animated pics, this confirms that Italians remain eager consumers of traditional animation but are slower to click into techno-toons.

The arrival of “Harry Potter” Dec. 6 with a record-breaking opening weekend gives little doubt as to where the annual B.O. crown will rest. And the decision of local distrib Medusa to hold back “Lord of the Rings” for January to stay clear of the overcrowded Christmas season should help get the new year off to a buoyant start.

– David Rooney

Spain

Bolstered by rising ticket prices, total B.O in Spain looks set to improve some 5%-10% this year.

And, more important, Spain this year produced its first true blockbusters since the 1960s: Alejandro Amenabar’s “The Others” ($24 million) and Santiago Segura’s gumshoe spoof “Torrente 2″ ($21 million).

Cinema tickets sold reached 123 million through Nov. 25. With “Lord of the Rings,” which opened Dec. 19, that figure puts Spain on track for a total year figure of around 140 million admissions. This would be 3% up on 2000, marking Spain’s 13th successive year of rising cinema admissions, and its best year for tickets sold since 1983.

“Up to ‘Harry Potter’ and ‘Rings,’ this year has been so-so for American movies,” says cinema booker Roberto Bayon.

But 2002 should belong to the U.S., he predicts, citing such titles as “Monsters, Inc.,” “Ocean’s Eleven,” “Spiderman,” “Black Hawk Dawn,” and new episodes in the “Star Wars” and the “Rings” franchise.

As of Dec. 20, U.S. market share stood at 63% through Nov. 25, way down on its 82% in 2000. That said, UIP had a banner year, placing nine films in the top 15 up to Nov. 25, led by “Bridget Jones’s Diary” ($12 million) and “The Mummy Returns” ($11 million).

Local pics’ market share reached 19% through Nov. 25, a big increase from 10% in 2000 and the best result since 1984.

But Spain’s production boom remains extremely fragile.

Beyond “Others” and “Torrente 2,” only one Spanish title, Vicente Aranda’s “Mad Love” ($6 million) made the top 25 movies in Spain through Nov. 25, and that was at No. 24.

The Spanish industry faces what looks like a classic, financing-fuelled boom-and-bust syndrome. Flush with cash from Spanish broadcasters, who are obliged to invest 5% of their total turnover in Spanish films, production levels rose last year to 104 films produced.

This year saw 91 theatrical releases of Spanish features by the end of November. Most disappeared, including Manuel Gomez Pereira’s anticipated “Off Key” and acclaimed debuts by Victor Garcia Leon (“No Pain, No Gain”) and Sigfrid Monleon (“Island”).

Producers agree that too many small films are being made in Spain. Few, however, are willing to up budgets and risk, or voluntarily downscale production while ready TV finance and subsidies remain available.

– John Hopewell

Scandinavia

Like many filmgoers on the Continent, the Danes flocked to local pics in 2001. After having lost one third of its audiences in 2000, domestic production bounced back to control 30% of the market.

Total admissions rose by 10%, to total 12 million, depending on the performance of “The Lord of the Rings” at Christmas.

“Usually one or two Danish titles make the gains, but this year several — and different types — of films have exceeded 300,000 admissions,” says the Danish Film Institute’s Jimmy Bredow.

In Norway two local productions, “Elling” and “Cool and Crazy,” turned box office figures upside down, selling 750,000 and 550,000 tickets, respectively.

“Just a few years ago, a domestic feature raking in 125,000 viewers was huge success. Now such a figure will hardly satisfy anybody,” says Egmont Columbia TriStar distributor Bjorn Hoenvoll.

The chairman of the Norwegian Distributors Assn., Hoenvoll estimates moviehouse visits in 2001 to reach 12.3 million, up 6.5% from 2000. Helped by “The Greatest Thing,” local market share almost doubled, to 15%.

Through Oct. 31, Swedish theaters had sold 14 million tickets — the same as during the same period in 1999 – and domestic titles accounted for 26%, up 1%.

“It’s the best result for the last five years, and due to a string of successful films,” explains head of film and cinema statistics Gun Ericsson, of the Swedish Film Institute.

In Finland, five years of growing box office figures was brought to an end in 2001, as cinema attendance reached only 6.5 million, down 7%.

Only one local feature, “Rose of the Rascal,” contributed substantially to the wickets, with 350,000 admissions. All other domestic releases came in under 60,000.

– Jorn Rossing Jensen

Czech Republic

Czech distributors are feeling flush as admissions broke the 10 million mark for the first time since 1992.

Even better news is the 20% rise in box office, as customers cough up a healthy $4 average per ticket at the new multiplexes springing up in major cities. The 2001 total is projected at over $22 million.

There were no big losers in 2001, but romantic comedies benefited most from multiplex trade.

More adults over 30 and women appeared to be attending the upscale cinemas, boosting numbers for films such as “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider,” “Amelie,” “Moulin Rouge,” “Chocolate” and smash “Bridget Jones’s Diary.”

Czech films once again wowed locals, who put Jan Sverak’s “Dark Blue World” in first place with 1 million admissions.

Czech arthouse pleaser “Kytice” (Bouquet) beat out “Pearl Harbor” for second place, topping 400,000 admissions. Czech films accounted for 30% of tickets sold, with U.S. movies claiming 55%. The remaining 15% was claimed mainly by Euro films.

– Cathy Meils

Poland

In 2001, an estimated 23 million people went to the movies in Poland, 25% more than last year. Almost 10 million chose to see Polish films.

Homemade epics — “Quo Vadis” (4.2 million viewers), “In Desert and Wilderness” (2.2 million), and “A Spring to Come” (1.7 million) — were the top draws, but they were not as successful as their budgets or their backers hoped.

Although the producers of “In Desert and Wilderness” did manage to pay off the bank loan, there’s no talk yet of any profit made by the film. “A Spring to Come” will only be paying off the last installment on its loan in January, and the investors haven’t seen a return of their money yet.

As for foreign films, “Shrek” was the most popular, followed closely by “Bridget Jones’s Dairy” and “102 Dalmatians.” Next on the list: “Pearl Harbor” (569,000), “What Women Want” (545,000) and “Cast Away” (430,000).

– Barbara Hollender
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