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BOFFO YEAR ABROAD

Big pix push o'seas B.O. to record high

SYDNEY – The foreign box office looks set to end the year on a record high, with three films grossing over $200 million, compared to only one in 1995.

The banner year comes despite a lackluster December. Aside from “Independence Day’s” scorching debut in Japan and “The Hunchback of Notre Dame’s” hefty earnings in parts of Europe, exhibs lament the lack of a killer holiday title.

In 1996, 15 titles grossed more than $100 million overseas, and that excludes newcomers such as “Ransom” and “101 Dalmatians,” which are destined to hit that mark next year. While that’s two fewer than in 1995, there’s a much bigger bulge in the upper echelon this year, with “Independence Day” soaring above $400 million, “Mission: Impossible” and “Twister” both scooping up more than $200 million and “The Rock” ranking a hair below $200 million. Compare that with last year, when only “Die Hard With a Vengeance” scored more than $200 million.

The top 15 collectively have amassed $2.60 billion (with plenty of upside left for “Independence Day” and “Hunchback”), comfortably beating the 1995 top 17’s total of $2.36 billion.

This inflation at the top of the B.O. tree is attributed by Buena Vista Intl. president Mark Zoradi to three factors: a greater preponderance of “event” films; distributors being able to release major films much wider and faster from day one; and a stronger exhibition infrastructure as new multiplexes and refits proliferate around the world.

Zoradi said he expects BVI’s films collectively to ring up in excess of $1 billion, surpassing its 1995 record of $1.007 billion. That would almost certainly elevate the Disney stable to the coveted position of No. 1 distrib overseas – ahead of Universal, which has rebounded on the back of “Twister,” “The Nutty Professor” and “Babe.” Fox too is enjoying a banner year, driven by Roland Emmerich’s aliens and “Broken Arrow.”

“Day” is headed for $100 million in Japan, a market that uniquely favors sci-fi and effects-laden films over other genres. The top five Japan grossers of all time, according to Fox Intl. exec VP Julian Levin, are “E.T.” ($145 million), “Jurassic Park” ($125.5 million), “Terminator 2” ($87 million), “Back to the Future Part 2” ($83.6 million) and “Jaws” ($76 million).

Zoradi calculates BVI is releasing mainstream films 10% wider now than last year, citing “101 Dalmatians’ ” launch on 550 prints in the U.K. Dec. 13, and “Hunchback” building to 500 screens in Italy – 50 more than “Pocahontas.”

Healthy gains

All the major markets, with the notable exception of Japan, seem certain to post healthy B.O. gains, despite a Christmas-New Year season that generally looks like it’s falling short of last year.

“I expect this December-January will be well below last year,” said Peter Cody, programming chief of Australia’s Greater Union loop. Contrasting the lineups, Cody doesn’t see “Daylight” (Dec. 26) doing anything like “Goldeneye’s” business, and he doubts that “101 Dalmatians” (which had a moderate launch Dec. 5) and “Space Jam” (Dec. 12) will prove as strong as “Babe” and “Toy Story.”

The Aussie B.O. edged just over A$500 million ($395 million) for the first time ever last year, and distribs forecast a 5% gain this year, which will mark the ninth consecutive upswing.

But Japan, traditionally the majors’ most lucrative foreign theatrical market, has slipped backward. Through October the majors’ combined Japanese rentals skidded by 25% to 21.5 billion yen ($204 million). Even with the arrival of “Independence Day,” the deficit is too large for the studios to hope to match 1995’s $310 million, according to UIP Japan president Kiri Inomata.

Blame the product. Prior to “Independence Day,” only three 1996 titles earned rentals of more than $20 million (“Mission: Impossible,” “Twister” and “Seven”), vs. six in 1995. Bill Ireton, Warner Bros. managing director in Japan, said the Tokyo B.O. is off about 10% this year.

In Europe, a combination of solid national and U.S. pics and new multiplexes has boosted the French box office. Ticket sales in Paris are up by about 5% this year, and by 12% in key provincial cities, according to the Gaumont chain’s Stephane Parthenay. Four Gallic titles figure in the year’s top 10, led by comedy “Les Trois Freres” ($46 million B.O., outscoring second-placed “Independence Day’s” $37 million), Gallic-Belgian co-prod “Le Huitieme Jour” ($23 million), cross-dressing comedy “Pedale Douce” and “Le Jaguar.”

B.O. lift

In Germany, exhibs are estimating a B.O. lift of 8% to 10%, despite a blah October-November. The Ufa chain’s Tanja Guss said she expects a good Christmas season but decries the lack of “big films.” The year contained some surprises, both pleasant and unwelcome. Guss opined that “Up Close and Personal,” “12 Monkeys” and “Dracula: Dead and Loving It” all did better than she expected, while she was disappointed with “Striptease,” “Heat,” “Casino” and “Babe.”

In the U.K., ticket sales through the end of October hit 106 million, 10% up on last year, and level with 1994, whose 124 million total stands as the best year since the cinema renaissance that began in the mid-1980s. Exhibs are bracing for a busy year-end with “101 Dalmatians” and “Star Trek: First Contact” debuting Dec. 13, “Evita” bursting forth Dec. 20, and “Daylight” on Dec. 26.

‘Maintaining the going rate’

The Italian B.O. will wind about 3% to 4% up on last year, according to Gianluigi Della Casa, chief of the Cinema 5 loop. “It’s been a year of maintaining the going rate; trading has been average, (but) we haven’t had that big title to keep the market awake until Christmas,” Della Casa said. Although he said Christmas lacks an obvious blockbuster, he’s bullish about “Shine” and “The Ghost and the Darkness,” plus two Italo entries: Carlo Verdone’s “Mad About Iris Blond” (romantic comedy about a musician who falls for a flighty chanteuse, from the director of last Christmas’ hit “Honeymoon Trips”); and the Vanzina brothers’ “Strolling Through Time” (a caper about two buffoons who segue from the Universal Studios’ tour to a trip through the ages).

(Liza Foreman in Berlin, David Rooney in Rome, Lee Simkins in London and Michael Williams in Paris contributed to this report.)

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