Audiences opt for Hollywood hits

Despite all the fest laurels for “Road to Guantanamo,” “The Wind that Shakes the Barley” and “The Queen,” and all the award season buzz for “Last King of Scotland,” “Notes on a Scandal” (and “The Queen” again), 2006 has been a tough year for British movies in front of the most unforgiving jury of them all — Blighty’s cinema-going public.

Box office overall has kept pace with last year’s strong performance, but Queen Elizabeth II aside, local movies have contributed relatively little.

Yet that doesn’t mean the Hollywood studios are celebrating, because by and large it’s the U.S. majors that have suffered the greatest disappointments with their own British pick-ups and productions, particularly given the amount of P&A coin they lavished on them.

Warner managed a so-so $4.3 million with “Alien Autopsy,” Fox a blah $4 million with “Confetti,” and UIP a truly terrible $1.7 million with “Sixty Six” after spending over $3.5 million on marketing.

Fox enjoyed somewhat better fortune with “The History Boys,” which snagged $7.8 million, but UIP’s “Flushed Away,” from Bristol-based Aardman, opened to a decidedly ordinary $9.3 million in its first 10 days.

“The Queen” and “The Wind that Shakes the Barley” from Pathe are virtually the only clear-cut local successes of the year, with $14.9 million and $7.4 million, respectively. Both triumphed relative to their size and expectation, but “Queen,” the year’s top-grossing indie Brit film, didn’t even break into the overall B.O. top 20.

The most telling fact is that the majority of movies in the top 10 Brit films would be privately regarded as flops by their distribs.

The indies performed below expectations: “Stormbreaker,” distribbed in the U.K. by Entertainment Film ($13.2 million); “Tristram Shandy,” Lionsgate ($2.1 million); and “Breakfast on Pluto,” Pathe ($1.7 million).

Yet the line is blurring where Britishness ends and Hollywood begins. Many of the hit movies that propped up the U.K. box office in 2006 had a strong British connection.

The U.K. top five includes the second “Pirates” movie (Brit accented characters, lots of Brit actors); “Casino Royale,” which is British in every way except financially; “Da Vinci Code,” a U.K. co-pro, partly shot in Blighty; and “Borat,” an American movie built entirely upon the comic talents of a British star. Of the top five, only “Ice Age: The Meltdown” has no Brit connection at all.

Asking whether strong B.O. for local films helps or hurts the Hollywood studios is thus irrelevant in Blighty. The studios are so deep into the British biz that no clear distinction can be drawn. The Brit production sector is arguably led by the U.S. majors or their satellites, via companies such as Working Title and DNA, and by other American players such as Scott Rudin and Harvey Weinstein.

There was no case where a strong local opener bested a Hollywood rival.

“The Queen” put up a stiff fight against “Talladega Nights,” but they were hardly pitching for the same audience. “Borat” wiped out several local wannabes, including “Sixty Six,” “Starter for 10″ and “Breaking and Entering.”

“Flushed Away” was perceived as a Hollywoodized and pasteurized version of Aardman’s quirky Brit wit, and suffered accordingly, particularly given competition from “Happy Feet” and a general weariness with second-rate CGI (as evidenced by the underperformance of “Cars,” “Open Season” and “Barnyard”).

BOX OFFICE REPORTS
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Main story: Hollywood vs. home movies

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