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But Local Indies Run Into More Downs Than Ups

In a rollercoaster year for Britain’s independent distributors, several surged to exhilarating peaks while for others it was mostly downhill.

On one flank, the indie distribs are facing a constant and sometimes losing battle to acquire A titles and playdates against the might of the majors.

On the other, the video rental business, which had been a lifeline for many distribs, unexpectedly nosedived as the recession bit hard and satellite tv became a more formidable competitor, leaving some companies floundering.

Giving that vise a further twist is the inevitable reduction in prices for U.K. satellite rights in the wake of the Sky/BSB merger.

Medusa Pictures, MCEG/Virgin Vision and Castle Pictures sought salvation by closing their video sales and distrib divisions, and by channeling product via RCA/Columbia Pictures Video.

Oasis Releasing folded, and Enterprise Pictures admitted it had a lean spell despite good results with “Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!” and okay numbers on “Nightmare on Elm Street 5.”

Palace Pictures topped the indies’ b.o. ladder in 1990, thanks to superhit “When Harry Met Sally” and, down the scale, “Nuns On The Run,” “Wild At Heart,” “Cinema Paradiso” and “Nikita.” Distrib chief Daniel Battsek is gung-ho about his lineup over the next six months, including “The Grifters,” “Mr. & Mrs. Bridge,” Palace productions “The Miracle” and “Rage In Harlem,” Mike Leigh’s “Life Is Sweet,” Spanish pic “Ay Carmela!” and Peter Greenaway’s “Prospero’s Books.”

“I believe I’ve got the right cinemas on the right dates, and if you have the right product and marketing, there is a growing audience,” Battsek says.

Guild was No. 2 in billings, mostly on the strength of its biggest-ever click, “Total Recall.” In a more specialized niche, Guild took tidy sums with “Field Of Dreams,” “Last Exit To Brooklyn” and a sleeper, “Repossessed.”

Making the most of its relationship with Carolco, Guild has high hopes for “The Doors,” “L.A. Story,” “Jacob’s Ladder,” “Terminator II” and “Basic Instinct.” Guild’s Peter Alarik thinks his biggest hit this year could be “Dances With Wolves,” bowing Feb. 8 and fanned by intense pre-Oscar attention. He’s also confident that Franco Zeffirelli’s “Hamlet” will pique the interest of British audiences.

Rank Film Distributors enjoyed a 40% hike in b.o. revenues, with British gangster pic “The Krays” and Orion’s “Robocop 2” leading the pack. After “Alice” (slated for July), Orion product is moving to Columbia/Tri-Star; RFD will plug the gap with a blend of pictures for which it’s acquired foreign rights, plus servicing deals with ITC Entertainment and Manifesto Film Sales.

Name game

Vestron U.K. this month gets a new moniker, First Independent Films, and has firmed a raft of medium-big-budget films for this year.

Hobo Films, handling up-market pics, has secured two Merchant Ivory titles, “Ballad Of The Sad Cafe” and “Howard’s End,” plus “Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Dead” and Aussie pic “The Big Steal.”

Says Hobo’s John Hogarth: “I think the recession will have some effect on films designed for the mainstream, but there will always be a market for the better type of merchandise.”

At presstime, MCEG was involved in delicate negotiations to sell Virgin Vision U.K. to chief lender General Electric Capital Corp. Until the deal is done, Virgin execs are keeping a low profile but insist they’re pleased with “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles,” which in six weeks grossed a shade over £ 5 million. Some exhibs rated that figure as disappointing after its socko Stateside performance.

Virgin has “Q & A,” “American Friends,” “After Dark, My Sweet,” “Everybody Wins” and “The Adventures Of Milo And Otis” on its release slate. Its sales and distribution deal with RCA/Colpix is valued at £ 25 million and covers 33 Virgin titles for the U.K. vid rental market, including “Turtles,” “Robocop 2” and “Mermaids.”

Medusa aims to bounce back to prosperity this year with Nelson trio “Misery,” “Sibling Rivalry” and “Late For Dinner,” plus kidpic “Dinosaurs,” Alec Baldwin-starrer “The Fugitive” and “The Grand Tour.”

“It’s been a tough year for us and most independents,” says Medusa’s Nikki Parker. “We were not prepared for the enormous crash in the video rental market. Video has been affected by satellite and the drop in disposable income.”

Parker believes a pronounced fall in prices for U.K. satellite rights is inevitable now that BSkyB is the only sat game in town. “Sellers must realize that [British buyers] cannot spend $2 million for all rights,” she points out.

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