Media congloms’ global grip grows

HOLLYWOOD — Just as the debate over whether to allow greater consolidation in the media biz comes to a head, Hollywood congloms are quietly having a field day. OK, I know their stocks are in the toilet and the gross percentages they have to fork over to stars are in the stratosphere, but not everything is glum for congloms.

Profits may be fungible, but revenues are countable. And the big guys in Tinseltown are raking them in.

Per figures just leaked to Variety, the seven Hollywood majors last year chalked up record revs from their key worldwide businesses — theatrical exhibition, homevideo and DVD sales and licensing to TV stations.

The annual figures compiled by the Motion Picture Assn. show impressive gains at home and abroad, even though some of the increase overseas is attributable to a strong Euro and to the lack of local faves in top foreign territories.

Revenues from moviehouses, homevideo and TV stations worldwide accruing to the Hollywood majors hit $37.3 billion in 2002, up 18% or $5.7 billion from the prior year.

That’s a 33% increase over the $28 billion haul of five years ago, and comes even as these companies carp about their dwindling profit margins from moviemaking — something they do ever more loudly as negotiations with talent unions approach.

(The $37 billion doesn’t even take into account the various revenues the congloms pocket from their global music, theme park, TV station, cable and publishing businesses.)

All told, these so-called “copyright” businesses have become America’s biggest export, eclipsing the aircraft, pharmaceutical and agricultural sectors.

The best news for the congloms from the MPA’s summary report had to do with DVD, which showed phenomenal growth of 82% year on the year — and the room for growth abroad is considerable.

The bad news was on the foreign TV front (only a 3% yearly gain), where stations have pretty much scrapped Yank series in favor of local shows; foreign pay TV revenues were flat with the preceding year and, given recent mergers among pay platforms abroad, could decrease in the next few years.

As for Hollywood movies like “Spider-Man,” “Lord of the Rings,” “Harry Potter” and “Attack of the Clones,” they helped propel theatrical rentals to $3.9 billion domestically (a 9% increase) and to $3.1 billion abroad (a 29% increase).

Despite all attempts to jump-start a pan-European film industry, local successes are still hit-and-miss, and transnational winners can be counted on one hand. Without an “Amelie” in France or a “Manitou’s Shoe” in Germany to draw auds last year, American blockbusters enjoyed a 40% increase in revs on that continent, to $1.65 billion.

Bottom line: Seven U.S. companies are collecting record sums at a time when other American industries are faltering. And they’re doing so as more independent producers of content are being pushed to the wall.

Even Barry Diller, hardly my idea of an indie enthusiast, sounded the alarm last week, claiming consolidation had gone too far and that greater deregulation was not in the public interest.

That may, indeed, be true, but it’s hard to imagine going back to a more level, more populated, playing field — even though Bush’s antitrust watchdog appears more, well, watchful than Clinton’s was.

Still, Rupert Murdoch just sealed his deal for DirectTV, helping News Corp. consolidate on a global basis the satcasting biz.

For its part, Comcast has become a Goliath among cable operators, while Viacom has amassed the largest programming catalog in the world through acquisitions.

And Vivendi Universal Entertainment may, indeed, be picked apart thanks to its parent company’s Gallic gaffes, but it’ll be done by rival congloms like NBC or Viacom, certainly not by some indie upstart.

The MPA numbers clearly didn’t take any of the top execs at the congloms by surprise. But they’re probably none too pleased to see them plastered all over the press. After all, someone might just figure out how to massage them into a case against further media amalgamation.

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