Majors squash local fare

H'wood sets record o'seas as foreign pix offer scant challenge

As the year hit the halfway point, U.S. studios looked headed for a banner year overseas — but the big challenge is to maintain this momentum.

Through the end of June, the majors, along with mini-majors Miramax and New Line, racked up $4.5 billion at cinemas overseas — easily eclipsing their $3.84 million haul in the first half of 2003. (The tallies were boosted by favorable exchange rates and faltering local fare.)

In the lead is Warner Bros., which amassed $1.48 billion, nearly $650 million more than its nearest rival, Disney’s Buena Vista Intl., through June 27.

But as Hollywood pix maintained a dizzying pace, some feared that they would hit the wall once the Olympics began. But the games next month in Greece are looming as less of a worry for U.S. distribs than the just-wrapped Euro 2004 soccer championships, whose impact wasn’t as great as feared, especially after all the major nations were knocked out.

Execs believe the Olympics will skew heavily to older males, so a host of films aimed at other demos is being launched in assorted markets during the Games. The array of counter-programming will include “King Arthur” in Spain and Germany, “Bourne Supremacy” in the U.K., “The Chronicles of Riddick,” “13 Going on 30” and “The Stepford Wives.”

If everyone maintains their pace, four studios could crack $1 billion this year — only the third time that’s happened, after 2002 and 1999.

  • Warners is raking in big dollars from “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” and on paper has a strong lineup including “Alexander” in some territories and year-end offerings “The Polar Express” and “Ocean’s 12.” The distrib might have enough momentum to overtake BVI’s 2003 total of $1.88 billion; beyond that lies Fox “Titanic”-fueled 1998 industry record of $1.97 billion.

  • BVI is on course to clock $1 billion for the 10th consecutive year, an unprecedented feat, as it counts on “King Arthur,” M. Night Shyamalan’s “The Village,” John Travolta starrer “Ladder 49,” the Nicolas Cage headliner “National Treasure” and Pixar’s “The Incredibles,” which rolls out in November, day-and-date with domestic.

  • Fox is on par with last year, but execs are confident the studio will surpass $1 billion by year-end, driven chiefly by “I, Robot,” “Alien vs. Predator” and “Man on Fire.”

With “Spider-Man 2” breaking records in its first wave of foreign releases, Columbia TriStar Intl. senior exec VP Mark Zucker is sure his division will hit $1 billion for the third year in a row. He’s also bullish about “Hellboy,” “Resident Evil: Apocalypse,” thriller “The Forgotten” and laffer “Christmas With the Kranks.”

Zucker concedes he can’t see any studio catching Warners this year, and muses, “It’s great to be No. 1. But internally we have our (profit) goals and our aim is to beat our budgets.”

Sony, Miramax, Universal and New Line (just) are tracking ahead of their first half ’03 tallies.

That bounty reflects not just a wealth of Yank blockbusters, most of which have far surpassed their domestic grosses abroad. It also points to the majors’ booming share of the B.O. spoils in many markets as national films have gone through a lean patch — with the notable exception of South Korea, where local product continues to dominate.

Japanese romance “Crying Out for Love in the Center of the World,” France’s heart-warmer “Les Choristes” and Germany’s Edgar Wallace spoof “Der Wixxer” are among the handful of homegrown hits this year.

Typifying the majors’ growing appetite for indigenous films, Warners handled Gallic click “Malabar Princess,” Pedro Almodovar’s “Bad Education” and Turkish comedy “Vizontele Tuuba.”

The U.S. companies’ results this year also have been boosted by favorable exchange rates as the dollar has slipped against most major currencies including the euro.

“That makes the hits more profitable but it also means you lose more money on the flops,” says Zucker.

Meanhile, DreamWorks is lagging but the deficit is fast being wiped out as “Shrek 2” devours lots of green stuff around the world.

Back in January, UIP chairman Stewart Till set an ambitious goal for his company: $2 billion B.O. in 2004. At the halfway point, UIP had rung up $674 million from U, Paramount and DreamWorks’ product and $44 million from pick-ups.

“We have a long way to go but that target is a possibility,” said prez Andrew Cripps, who is banking on “Terminal” (which he figures will do far better in the fall than it did in the hotly-contested summer at home), “The Bourne Supremacy,” “Collateral,” “Shark Tale” in October (one-two weeks after the U.S.) and “Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason” in November/December.

Nowadays it’s almost de rigueur that juggernauts like the “Harry Potter” and “Lord of the Rings” franchises, “The Last Samurai,” “Troy,” “Finding Nemo” and “The Day After Tomorrow” will sail way past their domestic results overseas.

The challenge for foreign distribs is to extract more dollars from titles that performed only moderately in the U.S. — although BVI was able to with “Brother Bear” ($144.5 million) and “The Haunted Mansion” ($104.3 million).

Now the studio is keen to prove it can parlay “Home on the Range” past its $50 million domestic tally.

BVI prez Mark Zoradi is positioning the toon squarely for kids aged 12 and under, and carefully picking dates in periods of low competition (this month in Latin America and French-speaking Europe, September/October in the balance of international.)

New Line’s hopes are resting on a bunch of titles including “The Notebook,” “Cellular,” “Birth,” “A Dirty Shame,” “After the Sunset” and “Blade: Trinity.”

Miramax’s key offerings will be “Finding Neverland” and the remake of “Shall We Dance” after the first half generated healthy returns for “Scary Movie 3” ($96.5 million), “Cold Mountain” ($79 million) and “Kill Bill Vol. 2” ($78.5 million).

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