Bond and Gibson combine to bring business alive

LONDON — The long-awaited arrival of “Casino Royale” and controversy-fuelled release of “Apocalypto” gave the Italian box office biz a perfect start to 2007, where weekend trade shot up 50% from the previous frame.

Following a national outcry over the general admission rating for Mel Gibson’s blood-soaked saga “Apocalypto,” the pic proved to pack a big box office punch, grossing $3.1 million on 316 for local distribber Eagle Pictures.

Although initially released as the local equivalent of a G rating, Italo exhibs are no longer admitting children under 14 to “Apocalypto” after culture minister Francesco Rutelli called for an overhaul of the country’s quirky ratings system.

Reaping an impressive $4.1 million at 407, “Casino Royale” took top spot and posted the best ever Italian result for a Bond film. Local bookers said the boffo result vindicated Sony’s decision to delay its release until after it had bowed elsewhere in Europe.

The double whammy of openers unseated local laffer “Christmas in New York” from the top of the Italian charts, pushing it into third spot. The festive period smash from the Filmauro stable has now scored $29.5 million.

“Apocalypto” also proved a big hit with bloodthirsty Brit auds. Released by indie distrib Icon on 385 screens, the gory epic scooped $2.6 million (including $40,144 in previews) for a $6,820 screen average. The boffo result set a new record for the best foreign-language opener in the territory, surpassing the previous best set by “Hero,” which scored $1.9 million in 2004.

Fox’s Ben Stiller comedy “Night at the Museum” kept up its strong European run with solid soph seshs in Germany where it was down 18% to $5 million at 794, and in the U.K. where it dipped a respectable 26% to $5.7 million at 487.

The “Museum” result in the U.K. was impressive given that a batch of indie distribs gave wide releases to varied fare including “Apocalypto” (Icon), “Miss Potter” (Momentum), “Employee of the Month” (Lionsgate U.K.) and “White Noise: The Light” (Entertainment).

Despite uninspiring reviews from the critics, “Miss Potter” opened stoutly, taking $2.7 million at 338 (including previews of $559,300.) Bookers report that the pic is doing so-so biz in upmarket locations, but playing surprisingly well in downmarket, multiplex sites. This pattern they attribute to average reviews putting off sophisticated auds but the the wide appeal of topliners Renee Zellweger and Ewan McGregor attracting less selective cinemagoers.

“Casino Royale” continues to delight Brit auds. It slipped just 26% in its seventh frame en route to a $100.4 million running cume. The pic looks nailed on to become the top-grossing pic released in 2006. “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest” currently wears the crown with a $101.8 million final cume.

The Three Kings celebrations across Spain severely dented weekend box office biz. Kids pics including Luc Besson’s “Arthur and the Invisibles” and Spanish-Argentinean co-production “The Hairy Tooth Fairy” nosedived 41% and 52% respectively as nippers stayed home to play with their toys.

But upscale dramas aimed at adults fared pretty well in Spain.

Neil Burger’s period melodrama “The Illusionist,” which stars Edward Norton and Paul Giamatti, rose 35% in its eighth frame and has now scored an impressive $10 million for Aurum Produccionnes.

Clint Eastwood’s “Flags of Our Fathers,” fueled by keen anticipation, opened in Spain with $898,000 at 163, including hefty $202,000 previews. The opening was far from boffo but much better than the extremely lackluster U.K. bow over Christmas.

Sofia Coppola’s “Marie Antoinette” opened solidly in Spain, taking $734,300 at 103 for a $6,835 screen average.

Yank helmers Coppola and Eastwood remain well supported by Span-ish auds.

Fuelled by strong word of mouth and a significant expansion, awards season contender “Babel” leapt 16% in its soph sesh in Spain for a running cume of $4.3 million.

“Babel” also held well in Germany where it pushed up 24% in its third frame for a $2.5 million current take.

U.S. fare dominates early January business in Germany where UPI gave “Charlotte’s Web” its first outing in a major Euro territory. The pic managed just over $1 million at 401, which was only good enough for sixth spot.

After a sustained assault on the Teutonic charts, Bavarian laffer “Wer fruher stirbt ist langer tot” has passed the $10 million mark. Once again defying box office gravity, the pic rose 40% in its 22nd frame and has now grossed $10.2 million.

Additional reporting by John Hopewell (Spain), Nick Vivarelli (Italy) and Ed Meza (Germany).

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