Arthouse fare awes auds abroad

Foreign, specialty pix complement blockbusters

In early May, Australia’s Roadshow Film Distributors picked up a little indie U.S. film just after it opened domestically and began planning a platform launch.

Since then, Roadshow has changed the release strategy five times as that unheralded pic became a genuine phenom in the U.S.

“My Big Fat Greek Wedding” is slated to debut Down Under Oct. 24 on a relatively wide 100-plus prints (preceded by two weekends of paid previews), backed by a hefty ad-pub campaign that RFD chairman Ian Sands says is akin to what he spends on the more obvious blockbusters.

“Every cinema has put up its hand for this film,” marvels Sands, who predicts the romantic comedy will gross at least A$10 million ($5.4 million).

Exhibs’ expectations in some other markets are a bit more modest, but the film has already demonstrated excellent playability in its first offshore engagements in Greece, Israel and German-speaking Switzerland.

All the signs point to “Wedding” complementing a growing list of European and Asian films that have been breakout successes in multiple territories this year.

British-set “Bend It Like Beckham” and “Gosford Park” have chalked up healthy grosses internationally. Spain’s “Talk to Her,” Japanese toon “Spirited Away,” Hong Kong’s “Shaolin Soccer” and Gallic laffer “Asterix & Obelix: Mission Cleopatra” are among the foreign-lingo titles that have drawn sizable audiences outside their home territories.

“We’re seeing local markets embrace their own cinema cultures in a greater way than in recent years, and, helped by the advent of DVD, audiences overall are showing a greater acceptance of a wide assortment of product,” says one U.S. major rep who tracks international B.O. trends.

The exec adds, “There are a lot more screens now (overseas), which means more room for a lot of different product types.”

Many exhibs have been pleased with this year’s varied menu of film fare.

“The specialized and arthouse market here is healthy and vibrant,” says Peter Koenig, chief booker at Germany’s UFA Theater, who points to Pedro Almodovar’s “Talk to Her,” which has picked up a handy $1.3 million through its third weekend, and Robert Altman’s “Gosford Park,” which fetched $2.5 million.

Altman’s murder mystery has raked in $45.5 million abroad (topping domestic’s $41.3 million) and is slated for Oct. 12 in Japan, its final market, via Universal/UIP.

Koenig is reasonably bullish about “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” especially in view of Germany’s strong Greek community. He forecasts the pic (which will be released locally by 20th Century Fox but isn’t set yet) will sell 400,000-500,000 tickets, or about $2.5 million.

And he expects “Bend It Like Beckham,” which preems Oct. 3, to perform beyond the arthouse circuit. “It’s kid-friendly, young people will want to see it, and it will also attract (soccer) fans. It could definitely have a broad audience,” he says.

Quality pics in Australia are benefiting from playing on an unofficial circuit of around 60 locations, a mix of the major chains’ multiplexes and indie houses, according to Icon Film Distributors chief exec Mark Gooder.

Icon scored big with “Beckham” (which is pegged for early 2003 in the U.S. via Fox Searchlight) and “Gosford Park.”

Gooder notes their release patterns were similar to those of Oz hit “Lantana” and Miramax’s “Chocolat.” Those films are proof that Aussie exhibs can’t be accused of always preferring to screen U.S. blockbusters and being unwilling to find room for alternative product, Gooder opines.

And they’re encouraging older auds to visit the cinema more frequently.

“Beckham” kicked off successfully a week ago on 10 screens in Hong Kong, a market that may have been problematic for a gentle tale about an Indian girl in London who dreams of playing soccer like her idol, David Beckham.

“The initial patron response is good, and it was favorably reviewed by the local newspapers and radio stations. We expect an uptick this week,” says UA Cinemas general manager Bob Vallone.

Miramax collared U.S. and most international rights to “Shaolin Soccer” after it did blockbuster biz in its native Hong Kong. The soccer-themed comedy has become Miramax’s highest grosser ever in Japan (minting $20.1 million), South Korea ($4.1 million) and Malaysia and its second biggest in Singapore.

After a solid bow in France last month, “Shaolin” held fairly well in its soph session.

“The film appeals to several audiences: those who like to see a funny, sporty film, and those who are just curious to see original films,” says Antoine Mesnier, a marketing exec at Gallic loop UGC.

Mesnier adds: “There have been some great (crossover) successes this year, like ‘Talk to Her’ and ‘Spirited Away,’ but overall it’s been an average year so far. The French think of film less as an entertainment and more as a cultural event. So they are willing to see all sorts of films from all sorts of places, and they have been (accustomed) to a distribution structure that showcases variety in general.”

“Spirited Away” racked up a socko $10.6 million in Korea and a hefty $6.1 million in France.

However, some films have followed a checkered path around the world.

Take Mexican click “Y tu mama tambien” (And Your Mother, Too), which pocketed tidy sums in the U.S. and has been a steady earner in the U.K., Norway, Denmark and Down Under. But the raunchy road movie failed to stir interest in France and Germany.

As UFA’s Koenig notes, “Unless it’s by Almodovar, a Spanish-language film will have a hard time in Germany.”

(Ed Meza in Berlin and Liza Klaussmann in Paris contributed to this report.)

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