'Potter' puts WB on top o'seas

The world was just wild about “Harry” in 2002.

Warner Bros. took top honors in the majors’ overseas B.O. derby last year, thanks to a boffo run from “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.”

Warner’s international division amassed $1.6 billion — a company record and the second-highest ever behind Fox’s “Titanic”-fuelled $1.97 billion in 1998.

It marks the fifth time WB Intl. has notched $1 billion abroad (trailing Disney’s BVI, which has done so eight times) and a 19% gain over the studio’s prior record in 2001.

“We’re extremely happy to finish the year with such a fantastic result,” said Veronika Kwan-Rubinek, prexy of WB Intl. theatrical distribution.

Studio is reluctant to take a stab at estimating the final tally for “Chamber,” which has fetched $476.1 million abroad to date, vs. the first “Harry’s” $658.2 million. But the sequel was tracking marginally ahead of the original through Dec. 31, and she was delighted to see the boy wiz’s takings in most major markets shot up during the year-end vacation despite the invasion of “The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers.”

Fox Intl. was a strong No. 2 for the year, with a leg-up from MGM’s “Die Another Day,” which it’s handling abroad. Fox Intl. was buoyed by three titles, “Star Wars: Episode II — Attack of the Clones,” ($337 million) “Minority Report” ($203 million) and “Ice Age” ($202 million) which significantly outperformed their domestic tallies.

But Fox Int’l theatrical Scott Neeson worries about what he sees as a trend by some studios to chase grosses and market share at the expense of profitability by over-spending on ad campaigns.

While he accepts that all studios face increasing marketing costs, he says, “As an industry we have to be careful with our spending and not follow the U.S. model. In many markets like Germany, we do have to buy more spots to reach the same number of people because of the (profusion) of media outlets. TV is becoming a less effective medium.”

Neeson also expresses concern about rising levels of DVD piracy in markets including Taiwan and Australia, which he’s convinced is hurting the B.O. potential.

Sony’s sum

It was a record year for Sony at home and abroad, although the foreign division’s total was around $250 million below its domestic haul.

Even so, “It’s a very satisfying result,” says Columbia TriStar Intl. senior exec VP Mark Zucker. He attributes the discrepancy primarily to the fact that his unit had limited rights to films such as “The Mothman Prophecies” and “Resident Evil” and its partner Revolution Studios retains rights to its films in some key markets. Zucker also acknowledges that teen comedies which usually do well in the U.S. are “more challenging” for international auds.

Sony parlayed the “Men in Black” and “Stuart Little” sequels, “Panic Room” and “The Sweetest Thing” to substantially higher grosses than at home.

“We’ve made a number of improvements in our operations and the way we conduct our business around the world, which isn’t apparent in the grosses,” Zucker says, citing such initiatives as new hires and tightening financial controls.

As noted, BVI crossed $1 billion for the eighth year in a row — an unprecedented feat — and its 2002 total was 2% up on the prior year. Disney had just two blockbusters: “Monsters, Inc.” and “Signs,” while “Lilo & Stich” topped $100 million and is expected to hit $130 million-$135 million after it winds its foreign adventure in Japan in March.

To combat spiraling increases in marketing costs, BVI prez Mark Zoradi says, “We try to keep our ad-pub spending in check, in relationship to the potential of each movie. With day-and-date releases you can’t adjust your spending. But we can be more aggressive with films like ‘Sweet Home Alabama’ after their U.S. success, or we can pull back (after domestic flops) with a ‘Bad Company.’ “

The UIP studios’ films grossed $1.095 billion, a cyclical downturn after its company record $1.9 billion in 2001. Its tally includes $65.7 million in third-party acquisitions. Its top titles were “A Beautiful Mind” ($135.8 million), “Red Dragon” ($92.8 million with Japan slated for February), “About a Boy” ($85 million) and “The Bourne Identity” ($76.4 million).

New Line Intl. rang up an all-time high of $904 million, its year book-ended by the two “Lord of the Rings” and with handy contributions with “Austin Powers in Goldmember,” “Blade II” and “I Am Sam.”

“We’re thrilled to have beaten those other companies,” says worldwide marketing and distribution prez Rolf Mitweg. “For an independent to be up there is amazing.”

It was a flat year for the usually high-flying Miramax Intl. The mini-major’s best performers were Hong Kong comedy “Shaolin Soccer” ($28.8 million in calendar 2002), “Kate & Leopold” ($28 million) and “Serendipity” ($18 million).

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