United Kingdom

Following low-key start, Blighty biz faces year-end gridlock

RECENT PICKUPS
· Alpha Dog (Icon)
· Dear Wendy (Metrodome)
· The Mistress of Spices (Entertainment)
· Three Bad Men (Pathe)
· The Unknown (Optimum)
2004 STATS
Top film: Shrek 2 (UIP, $90.2 million)
Top indie: The Passion of the Christ (Icon, $21 million)
Total B.O.: $1.6 billion
Releases: 451
Screens: 3,342

Although the U.K. box office was up a robust 7.4% in the first quarter of 2005, the indie exhibs had a quiet start to the year, lacking a behemoth like Entertainment’s “The Lord of the Rings” films or a sleeper like Momentum’s “Lost in Translation” to boost their market share.

Entertainment made do with a flurry of modestly successful releases, led by “White Noise” ($12 million) and “Million Dollar Baby” ($9.9 million). But “Hostage” ($6.4 million) and “Son of the Mask” ($6 million) didn’t perform as well. “Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera,” a pre-Christmas release, fell short of being the hoped-for blockbuster, but it managed a respectable $17 million.

Pathe’s gamble of remaking 1960s TV toon “The Magic Roundabout” was just about vindicated by an $11 million gross, with DVD and TV revenues likely to be strong.

Similarly, “Racing Stripes” managed to gross $10.7 million for Momentum, but it was not quite the thoroughbred perf the company was banking on. It had more gratifying arthouse results with “Vera Drake” ($3.9 million, a record for a Mike Leigh film), and “Downfall” is on course to be the top-performing German movie in Blighty.

For the indies, theatrical release slates are loaded toward the second half of the year, which will mean a vicious battle for screens. “Bigger films are never at the beginning of the year (and) the end of this year is already gridlocked,” notes Optimum topper Will Clarke.

Meanwhile, Optimum and Tartan have been focusing on bolstering their lucrative DVD businesses.

With Optimum selling 11,000 units of Shane Meadows’ “Dead Man’s Shoes” in its first week of DVD release, the movie is on course for 80,000 units sold. That tally would bring in more than its entire production budget of $1.3 million in U.K. DVD sales alone.

Optimum also managed a decent $460,000 theatrical gross for Michael Winterbottom’s low-budget “Nine Songs,” and predicts the pic’s racy subject matter will translate into over 100,000 DVDs sold.

However, Clarke notes that the explosive growth of DVD is starting to slow. “It’s still a great business to be in, but prices are starting to slip, and we aren’t far away from saturation point in terms of getting titles onto the shelves.”

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