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Brits get soccer kicks

SOCCER IS ALL THE RAGE among Brit distribs — at least so long as it’s mixed with lashings of violence.

Universal Pictures Intl. has beaten off the competition to pay $1.4 million for all U.K. rights to Lexi Alexander’s debut movie “Hooligans,” starring former hobbit Elijah Wood as a Harvard dropout who gets his kicks with a crowd of East London soccer thugs.

That’s a hefty sum for a small movie. But it follows the disproportionate DVD success of another low-budget drama about soccer violence, Nick Love’s “The Football Factory,” which was released theatrically earlier this year.

Love’s pic, self-distribbed by its producer Vertigo Films, did a modest $1.3 million box office, but whipped up controversy with its bare-knuckle approach to the subject matter. That’s now paying off on DVD, shifting 250,000 units to date via Momentum Pictures and still going strong.

That matches the DVD performance of Momentum’s “Lost In Translation,” which took in more than $18 million in theaters.

The results for Love’s movie are all the more intriguing because its theatrical release was bedeviled by piracy, with a rough-cut DVD circulating among soccer fans even before the film appeared in cinemas.

“I thought it was going to hurt us, but I’m starting to wonder if it helped us because we could pitch our DVD as a special edition director’s cut,” muses Momentum topper Xavier Marchand.

UPI, primarily U’s video arm but an increasingly aggressive all-rights buyer, is clearly hoping “Hooligans” will appeal to the same crowd of young male DVD buyers. Alexander herself, a German based in Los Angeles who was a kickboxing and karate world champ and then a stuntwoman while she studied to be a director, seems to have just the right background for that market.

Indies miss out on Brit hits

The stats say that British movies are having a boffo year at Blighty’s box office. But local indies could be forgiven for feeling that the bonanza is passing them by.

Brit pics have taken $293 million, or 22.8%, of the year’s $1.28 billion gross to date. That’s a big leap from $198 million, or 15.4%, this time last year. The $5 million mark has been beaten by 13 British-qualifying movies, against five by November 2003.

Hollywood needn’t fret, though. Nine out of the top 10 Brits were produced and distributed by U.S. majors, with only Pathe’s “Bride and Prejudice” preventing a clean sweep.

Some of the studio pics are British only in the narrowest legal sense — “Troy,” “King Arthur” and “Alien vs. Predator.” Others have a greater claim — the third “Harry Potter” pic from Warner, a foursome from Working Title (“Bridget Jones: Edge of Reason,” “Wimbledon,” “Shaun of the Dead” and “Thunderbirds”), and Sony’s “Layer Cake.”

The results reflect, in part, the success of the U.K.’s tax breaks in attracting Hollywood production over the past couple of years. (Five of the top 10 were also co-financed by the now outlawed Inside Track fund, but that’s another story.)

They also testify to the huge structural advantages the studios have in the distribution marketplace, where their TV and video deals, and of course their deeper corporate pockets, permit them to spend far more aggressively than indies.

“The majors will spend $5 million to get a $10 million gross, but those numbers just don’t add up for an independent,” says Zygi Kamasa of indie Redbus.

From the indie perspective, 2004 has been an awful B.O. year for Brit pics, from “Tooth,” “Five Children and It” and “Inside I’m Dancing” to “Stage Beauty,” “Fat Slags,” “Code 46” and “A Fond Kiss.”

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