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EXHIBS: SUMMER’S THE TICKET

It’s been a chilly winter and spring for many cinemas overseas, and some U.S. majors are shivering. The first-quarter downturn in the U.S. inevitably spilled over into offshore territories, and ticket sales have plunged in Japan, the U.K. and France. That’s been offset to an extent by healthy gains in Germany, Australia and Spain.

But as in the U.S., international distrib mavens and exhibs generally are confident they’ll make up the shortfall in a bountiful summer and fall, to finish the year ahead of 1994.

The one glaring exception is France, where one leading programmer fears that after a fairly barren summer, the fall and winter periods won’t be strong enough to wipe out the year’s deficit.

According to unofficial Hollywood estimates, the majors’ combined rental revenues outside North America in the first quarter tallied $419.8 million. That’s a 5% dip on the corresponding period in 1994 ($441 million).

Warner Bros. Intl. was streets ahead of the competition, followed by archrival Buena Vista Intl., then Paramount (see chart).

The figures don’t include any contributions from indie distribs or from Ted Turner’s companies. The Turner stable, including Castle Rock and New Line, has joined the Motion Picture Assn. but its films are handled mostly by indies who pay minimum guarantees, hence Turner execs can’t track rentals as quickly as the established majors. New Line announced at Cannes it is in the process of restructuring foreign deals on a straight distribution basis.

The first-quarter decline is no cause for panic, contends WB Intl. president Wayne Duband from his comfortable position atop the majors’ ladder.

“I don’t think exhibitors should complain too much,” says Duband, pointing to four Warner pictures which each have topped $100 million B.O. overseas this year: “Interview With the Vampire,” “The Specialist,” “Disclosure” and “Outbreak.”

If there’s been a problem at pay windows, says Duband, it rests with other majors’ product and with the failure of the indie marketplace so far this year to generate a megahit of the scale of “Four Weddings and a Funeral” (which began rolling out overseas last summer). There was, of course, “The Mask,” which bowed late last year and to date has grossed about $198 million.

How big the cake?

Duband only has one worry about the summer and fall outlook: “How big can the cake get? We’re releasing more potentially successful films from July through October than ever before. If the (total) B.O. pie can’t get bigger – and it will need to, to make up for the first-quarter losses – then everyone’s movies will suffer,” he says.

“That will mean that movies that would have been capable of doing well in a relatively quiet period will struggle” in the congested marketplace, he adds.

Disney’s Buena Vista Intl. has Warners in its sights. BVI’s revenues through the end of May were slightly ahead of last year. Preparing to unleash a lot of heavy artillery overseas, president Mark Zoradi says he’s confident the distrib will equal, or potentially exceed, BVI’s record 1994 result, when the Mouse House topped the majors’ league overseas with $418.4 million rentals.

BVI’s big guns for the rest of this year are “Die Hard With a Vengeance” in 66% of the world (Fox has most other territories) “Crimson Tide,” “While You Were Sleeping,” “Pocahontas” and “The Santa Clause.”

Meanwhile, the currency devaluation in Mexico has torpedoed the majors’ revenues from that once-thriving market. But Zoradi says he expects his Latin American rentals to remain level with last year, thanks to healthy contributions from Argentina, Brazil and Colombia.

Spain is on the upswing, now accounting for up to 8% of foreign revenues, up from 6% a few years ago, Zoradi adds.

There are sharply conflicting views about the health of the Japanese market, which last year was dislodged by Germany from its position as No. 1 outside North America.

Some tradesters, like Kiri Inomata, president of United Intl. Pictures Japan, believe receipts have dropped by as much as 10%. She believes the recent subway nerve gas attacks have heightened fear of terrorism in public places, thus keeping people away from cinemas. Even despite the two-week Golden Week vacation, traditionally one of the busiest times of the cinema calendar, the B.O. has stayed quite low, she said. UIP’s “Forrest Gump” has done its bit to keep cinemas afloat, grossing $65 million.

‘Unbelievable’ summer

But Inomata says the summer lineup, dotted with U.S. films crossing the Pacific right after their domestic debut, looks “unbelievable,” and she’s sure the Japanese B.O. will wind 1995 well up on last year, and reclaim pole position internationally.

Rein Rabakkuk, VP of the Warner-Mycal exhib co-venture in Japan, is equally bullish about the summer sked that includes “Batman Forever” (June 17), “Die Hard With a Vengeance” (July 1), “Apollo 13” (July 22), “Pocahontas” and “Casper” (both July 29), and “Waterworld” (Aug. 5).

But he’s detected no drop whatsoever at his multiplexes this year. Indeed, he says ticket sales at some of his longer-established theaters are running 30% to 50% up on last year, although “the product has not been all that good.”

The Warner-Mycal partners – WB and shopping center developer Nichii – are so pleased with their first seven cinemas that they decided recently it’s “full speed ahead” with the next phase, says Rabakkuk.

He’s scouting for a group of sites to present to the board and says it envisions as many as 12-18 potential locations, a mix of existing Nichii centers and greenfield developments.

Fall of Paris

In France, the sprouting of multiplexes outside the capital has helped boost ticket sales in provincial cities by 11% this year. But exhibs say those gains are offset by an 8% fall in the Paris B.O.

After a limp spring, Gallic cinemas can bank only on two major U.S. releases – “Batman Forever” (July 19) and “Die Hard With a Vengeance” (Aug. 2) – to tide them through the summer.

“We need three or four more big films,” says Francis Boespflug, programming chief of the Gaumont loop. “We will be in deep trouble after the summer. We have a very good range of U.S. and French films in the fall and winter, but they won’t recoup (the earlier losses),” he warns.

Tempering his enthusiasm for the fourth-quarter lineup, Boepflug says at this stage he can’t identify any Gallic entry with the potential of last winter’s local blockbuster “Un Indien dans la Ville.” And he can’t be sure that Disney’s upcoming “Pocahontas” will match “The Lion King” or “Beauty and the Beast.”

In the U.K., some cinemas report a 15%-20% slump in receipts this year. But Stan Fishman, an Odeon cinemas’ consultant, believes the underlying growth that has propelled the Blighty B.O. to new heights every year since the mid-1980s is still there. He’s not perturbed by the recent dip, which he blames partly on the Oscars not favoring the films that were positioned to take advantage of the awards.

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