'Potter,' 'Oceans' give distrib shot at second year

If you can find a bookmaker willing to take bets on which studio will win the overseas B.O. derby this year, put the house (or at least the weekend cottage) on Warner Bros.

Fueled by “Ocean’s Eleven” and hefty carryover biz from boy wizard “Harry Potter,” Warner has a commanding lead over its rivals in the first half of 2002, more than doubling its results for the same period last year.

Other distribs including Sony and Disney aren’t willing to concede just yet, but WB appears to have enough firepower in the run home to take the crown for the second consecutive year.

Still, the hits (proven or on paper) are spread out so evenly, it’s a fair bet WB, Sony, Disney’s BVI and 20th Century Fox all will top $1 billion in B.O. outside North America this year. Only once before– in 1999– have four majors reached that milestone in the same year. Three (WB, Universal and BVI) got to that pinnacle last year, and two (BVI, U) did so in 2000.

While every studio argues that results per film and the corporate bottom line are more important measuring sticks than who wins the race, those bragging rights are still highly coveted.

“We think we have a better than even shot at winning the B.O. crown, but we expect strong competition from Warner and BVI,” says Columbia TriStar senior exec VP Mark Zucker.

“We would love to be No. 1, although the performance of each title is more important,” says Fox Intl. theatrical distribution prexy Scott Neeson.

“It isn’t about being No. 1; our goal is one of consistency and to reach $1 billion for the eighth year in a row,” avers BVI exec VP Anthony Marcoly.

WB’s first-half bounty was boosted by $90 million earned from the territories where it handled New Line’s “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring” (which also factored into New Line’s figures, so there is a degree of double-counting). Warner also accrued $27.7 million in receipts from a handful of releases in markets where its partners Bel Air and Village Roadshow had the rights.

After watching their foreign earnings get severely diluted by the strong greenback in the past few years, all majors are now benefiting from the resurgence of the euro (which reached parity with the dollar last week for the first time in two years) and some other currencies. One studio estimates its remittances have improved by around 16% in the past few months from swings in exchange rates.

Another factor enhancing the majors’ fortunes is a pronounced downturn in market share this year for local films in a host of territories including Spain, Germany and Japan– thus creating more playing time for Hollywood’s offerings .

Yet BVI president Mark Zoradi isn’t taking comfort from the decline of any national cinema, asserting, “We’re very active in co-productions and acquisitions, so we want to see strong local industries.”

Snapping up the video rights in Japan to theatrical blockbuster “Spirited Away” has been a bonanza for Disney’s home entertainment arm, which shipped a record 5.4 million units of the title in that market last week.

Media costs continue to rise internationally, and the softness in TV advertising in many markets hasn’t resulted in any marked lowering of the costs of TV spots, execs say.

Rocketing DVD revenues are encouraging some studios to ensure films get a sizable launch even when they’re budgeted at best to break-even or make a small loss in cinemas, because they know there’ll be a handsome backend. “If our analysis tells us we can make money on a title (net, from all media) if we release it theatrically at a certain level, we’re obligated to exercise that release,” Zucker said. “We’ll be fairly aggressive even if we don’t expect to make a profit theatrically.”

In the run home, WB is riding high on “Scooby-Doo,” to be followed by “Eight-Legged Freaks,” “Ghost Ship” and Clint Eastwood’s “Blood Work” crowned, of course, by the next “Harry Potter” adventure.

Zucker is sure Sony’s films will notch $1 billion overseas for the third time in its history, spurred by “Men in Black II,” “Stuart Little 2″ (which opened over the weekend in Japan and the U.K.), “Mr. Deeds” and “XXX.”

Fox’s hopes rest chiefly on “Minority Report,” which hits Europe in October; “The Road to Perdition,” launching overseas in August; and MGM’s James Bond opus “Die Another Day.” Also, “Ice Age” is slated to defrost in Japan in August, and Neeson is optimistic about the prospects of the Susan Sarandon/Goldie Hawn buddy starrer “The Banger Sisters” and two films that will debut abroad before domestic: Alex Proyas’ “Garage Days” (set for Oz in October) and Danny Boyle’s “28 Days Later” (bowing in Blighty in November).

BVI is banking on “Lilo & Stitch” and a slew of upcoming titles including “Signs,” “Reign of Fire,” “Treasure Planet” (launching overseas day-and-date with domestic) and “The Country Bears.” Zoradi estimates it costs 10%-15% more to launch films overseas right after the U.S. because used prints can’t be deployed and ad spending is higher to create awareness rather than being able to rely on the buzz emanating from the U.S.

New Line president of worldwide distribution and marketing Rolf Mittweg is bullish about his lineup, highlighted by “Austin Powers in Goldmember,” Al Pacino starrer “Simone” and the second edition of “Rings.” Mittweg predicts “The Two Towers” will at least equal the first installment’s global B.O. due to the built-in audience and the expectation it will reach a new aud, including those who caught the original on video.

UIP has fallen off from last year, as Universal couldn’t replicate its hot streak and DreamWorks had nothing to match “Shrek.”

However, president Andrew Cripps is certain this half will be stronger, driven by “Red Dragon,” “The Bourne Identity” (which begins its offshore adventure in the U.K. in September), the European rollout of actioner “The Sum of All Fears” and another fall debutante, “Changing Lanes.”

After an uncharacteristically low-key first half, Miramax Intl. is looking for an upswing on the back of “Spy Kids 2,” “Four Feathers” and “Halloween: Resurrection.”

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