Teen-oriented pics dent adult drama dominance

With “The Dark Knight,” “Mamma Mia!” and “Quantum of Solace,” 2008 has been another blockbuster year for British cinema.

But strip out the studio movies, and that boast starts to look rather threadbare.

It’s the old story for the U.K. film community, which supplies the material, talent and manpower to manufacture global hits for Hollywood, while its own independent productions scrap at the margins.

No Brit indie pic has broken the $15 million barrier at the U.K. box office so far this year. The best performer is Pathe’s “The Duchess,” with $10.9 million in the U.K. (and more than $13 million in the U.S.), a healthy but unspectacular return for its $30 million budget.

There’s clearly a market for classy costume drama, but the weak result for “Brideshead Revisited” proves how hard it is to get these movies right. Keira Knightley boosted “The Duchess,” but not in “The Edge of Love,” an artier and altogether more confusing proposition, which limped to $1.8 million in the U.K. despite tons of media coverage.

The strongest theatrical results for Brit indie filmmakers this year came from pics for and about kids, bucking the conventional wisdom that this audience is only interested in American blockbusters.

Noel Clarke’s $2 million urban teen drama “Adulthood” was the year’s biggest surprise, taking $5.4 million via Pathe — seven times the gross of its prequel “Kidulthood.” Reviews weren’t great, but the youth audience paid no heed.

“Son of Rambow” and “Angus, Thongs and Perfect Snogging” shrugged off lukewarm reviews to grab the teen crowd. More striking, given its tough Holocaust subject matter, is the $9.5 million earned by “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas.”

“What’s encouraging is that these films are all about youth issues — rites of passage — and maybe it shows the younger audience doesn’t see British films as second-rate anymore,” Optimum Releasing managing director Danny Perkins says. “Perhaps it’s the Harry Potter factor: Young people have grown up watching a U.K.-set film with British talent talking in British accents.”

The microbudget boom has produced a hubbub of new, youthful British voices eager to find an audience. Yet crossing over from fest acclaim into the marketplace remains a leap.

Ollie Blackburn’s debut, “Donkey Punch,” the second movie from low-budget studio Warp X, is an example. It launched at Sundance and Edinburgh, whipped up a perfect media storm with its sex ‘n’ violence plotline, but got steamrollered at the B.O. by “Dark Knight” and “Mamma Mia!”

“Eden Lake,” “The Escapist,” “WAZ” and premiere Warp X pic “A Complete History of My Sexual Failures” followed a similar path from festival exposure to theatrical eclipse.

For such low-budget genre pics, the robust U.K. DVD market at least offers the hope of redemption. Nazi zombie pic “Outpost” took in less than $200,000 at the box office but shifted a boffo 33,000 DVDs in its first week alone.

This is also how careers can be built. The DVD performance of “Kidulthood” paved the way for the theatrical success of “Adulthood,” just as the DVD result for “Dead Man’s Shoes” led Shane Meadows to theatrical success with “This Is England” and this year’s microbudget hit, “Somers Town.”

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