End of year surge helps keep returns buoyant

LONDON — Thanks to solid December biz spearheaded by “Casino Royale” and given a late boost by the Ben Stiller laffer “Night at the Museum,” U.K. box office takings in 2006 matched those in 2005.

With a total gross of £840 million ($1.63 billion) for 2006, trade was up fractionally on 2005, which managed a total gross of $1.64 million.

The robust result is particularly impressive given that the U.K. was one of the few European territories that saw 2005 biz match the bumper results in 2004.

As of Dec. 10, takings were level-pegging with 2005 but bookers were concerned that it would be a stretch to match December 2005 biz, which was very beefy thanks to strong perfs by “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire,” “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” and “King Kong.”

However, a clutch of pics, including Fox’s “Night at the Museum,” Sony’s actioner “Casino Royale,” WB’s CGI pic “Happy Feet,” Fox’s fantasy “Eragon” and BVI’s thriller “Deja Vu,” which together cater to most auds, managed to bring home the bacon.

Launching on Boxing Day, “Night at the Museum” scored an opening weekend of $15.2 million at 488 (including sizable $7.3 million previews) to give late December biz a final flourish.

“Casino Royale” shows little sign of letting up its assault on the U.K. box office. It leapt 40% in its seventh frame last weekend despite losing 12% of its screens and is on track to becoming the highest grossing film released in 2006.

“Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest” finished up with $102 million but Bond is on its tail with a running cume of $98.2 million as of Jan. 4.

Another pic that helped keep December trade bubbling was foreign-language drama “Pan’s Labyrinth,” which has been playing well in upscale, urban sites. Guillermo del Toro’s magical realist pic was released Nov. 24 and has now scored an impressive $3.34 million for indie Optimum Releasing.

Driven largely by the strong showing by Fox’s “Ice Age: The Meltdown,” April proved a particularly strong month and was 43% up on the previous year.

November also was a good one for the cinema biz. Trade leapt up 14% on the previous year thanks chiefly to Fox’s “Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan” (released Nov. 3) and “Casino Royale” (Nov. 17).

The two releases ended up the second and fifth best performers of 2006 respectively.

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