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HIGH POINTS: It was the year of “Bean,” a quirky Rowan Atkinson comedy that seemingly came out of nowhere and banged the competition over the head, pulling in $45.2 million at home. Not bad for a movie that cost $17 million to make. The people at domestic distrib Gramercy Pictures, for whom the movie had been a bit of an oddity, were ecstatic.

” ‘Bean’ was truly a landmark,” said Andy Fogelson, president of Polygram Films, newly formed in May ’97 as a separate domestic distribution company with oversight over Gramercy, which is also under the Polygram Filmed Entertainment umbrella. “It was the first significant broad-release movie for Gramercy that was a real success. Gramercy’s ability to get the movie off and running suggested to us that they … can take broad-release films and do very well with them.”

In its first year, Polygram Films released just one picture, Propaganda’s “The Game,” a David Fincher-helmed thriller with Michael Douglas that made a disappointing $48.2 million domestically.

“While it didn’t perform as we would have wished,” Fogelson said, “it helped put Polygram Films in business.”

The new unit is a division of mother ship PFE, which also has subsidiary distrib units in France, Italy, Spain, Australia and other countries. The U.S. distrib aims to release about 10 films a year by 2000, most produced by PFE’s various labels, including Interscope Communications, Propaganda Films and London-based Working Title Films, which came up with “Bean.”

In terms of production, PFE prexy and CEO Michael Kuhn’s long-stated aim to sign up another major production entity — primarily to feed the hungry new domestic distrib — bore fruit with Polygram’s three-year first-look deal with Ridley and Tony Scott’s Scott Free Prods., signed in November. Under the deal Polygram hopes to generate one movie directed by one of the Scotts every 18 months, and two or three produced by them each year. The first two projects are David Dobkin’s “Clay Pigeons,” which will go out through Gramercy Pictures, and Marek Kanievska’s “Where the Money Is.”

LOW POINTS: Barring “Bean,” which is still bringing in money, 1997 “was not one of our stellar years,” said Gramercy prez Russell Schwartz. “It was an off-year for us. A couple of films were delayed and pushed back to ’98. ‘The Big Lebowski,’ for instance, took longer in post-production than we anticipated, and a couple of the indie films that we picked up were disappointing.”

“The Eighth Day,” which scraped up $86,383, and “Keys to Tulsa,” with a gross of $54,533, were particularly embarrassing. Two other failures, “Twin Town,” directed by Kevin Allen, and Mark Pellington’s “Going All the Way,” pulled in just over $200,000 between them.

Despite critical praise and thorough media attention, the Muhammad Ali docu “When We Were Kings” made just $2.3 million.

In August, Island Pictures founder Chris Blackwell resigned as CEO of the company — a Polygram subsidiary — as a protest against PFE’s move to insert its own editor on Robert Altman’s “The Gingerbread Man,” due for release on Jan. 23. By December, Polygram had closed Island and sent president Mark Burg and other employees searching for other employment.

Outlook for ’98: “There’s a lot left to be done,” said Fogelson, whose company plans a six-film slate this year. “Beginning in ’98, we’ll have two parallel if somewhat different releasing entities — really first-class distribution entities — and the apparatus is in place for the production entities to provide the backbone.”

At Gramercy, Schwartz said the main issue surrounding the marketing and distribution of films “will contunue to be the release date.”

“The market has become so unforgiving,” he said. “If it doesn’t hit on the fisrt weekend, even exclusively, it’s hard to hold those theaters. Our response is to either be more careful as to what we pick up or more aggressive in how we sell it — and of course we always tend to lean toward the latter.”

— Nick Madigan