Thriving box office has major studios celebrating

SYDNEY — Among the majors, Paramount is the year’s frontrunner with 19% of the market, largely thanks to “Monsters vs. Aliens,” “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen” and “Star Trek,” handled by the well-oiled team that until two years ago ran UIP Oz.

The indie sector, with the challenge of promoting the tiny Australian biz and acquiring marketable titles from outside Oz, has a tougher road ahead. Distribs are hoping for more commercial indie titles like “Slumdog Millionaire” and “Twilight” to come down the pike this year.

Paramount hasn’t changed its strategy since the company, run by Mike Selwyn, split from Universal, except that it now takes on some local titles, and co-distribs some pick-ups with indie shingle Transmission.

A cavalcade of star visits earlier this year helped tubthump Paramount’s slate of a total of 26 pics.

Roadshow, when combined with Warners, which it distribs in Oz, also stands at 19%, but its 2009 expenses were greater, with 43 pics in the market.

Fox is Oz’s third-ranked distributor, with a 17% share, Sony has 11.5%, Disney 11.2% and Universal 10%.

But local producers, whose pics are largely distribbed by indies, are having a rougher time. They’re ramping up the pressure on federal coin agency Screen Australia to solve the problem of tardy payments by distributors to filmmakers. Palace Films, once a key distributor of Oz fare including “Lantana,” “Japanese Story” and “Ten Canoes,” has been blacklisted by Screen Australia because of outstanding debts.

The 40% producerrebate introduced two years ago gives producers equity in their films, ensuring they now have an even greater interest in returns being promptly and fairly disbursed.

Sue Maslin, producer of “Celebrity: Dominic Dunne” among others, is urging Screen Australia to act on behalf of filmmakers, whom she says are powerless to act alone.

Palace has fallen back on releasing foreign-lingo fare, to reasonable success. The distrib is attached to Australia’s biggest arthouse circuit, the 23-site Palace Cinemas loop.

Meanwhile Madman Entertainment has stepped into the gap vacated by Palace, becoming Australia’s leading distributor of anime, Asian cinema, Bollywood and other niche fare. It is also emerging as a significant distributor of Oz pics.

Madman came to prominence when it distribbed microbudget portajohn comedy “Kenny” in ’06.

Change is also afoot among other Oz indie distribs. Hoyts is courting Oz producers now that it is flush from the successful release of “Twilight,” which grossed $15 millionMel Gibson and Bruce Davey’s Icon dominates the indies, with a 6% market share from 15 titles. The shingle, which Stuart Till is seeking to buy, has banked $28 million from “Slumdog Millionaire,” “Knowing” and a handful of other midrange titles.

Till announced his intended acquisition of Icon last October, but says the process continues to undergo due diligence.

Hopscotch, whose owners have been quietly courting interested buyers, has a busy slate for the remainder of the year, including high-profile Oz pics like Jane Campion’s Cannes entry “Bright Star.”

Rankings will be solidified by the end of August before the Oz version of Showest, the Australian Intl. Movie Convention, at which the annual box office awards are distributed.

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