Oz indies gather in show of strength

SYDNEY — It’s been a buoyant B.O. year in Oz, with indie distribs improving their market share vs. the U.S. majors — no mean feat.

Through the end of September, the industrywide gross was 8.2% ahead of the comparable period last year. (The comparison is skewed a bit because this year has one extra week, which happened to be school holidays.)

Indie releases clocked A$75.3 million ($54.2 million), repping nearly 11% of the market, vs. just 6.3% in the first nine months of 2003.

That tally excludes Roadshow, which releases Warner Bros. and New Line product Down Under. Factoring out Warner titles, Roadshow’s films earned $44.7 million through the end of September, nearly 44% lower than the prior year, which was swelled with the last two “Lord of the Rings” installments.

The rise in indie fortunes can be credited partly to Icon, which hit the jackpot with “The Passion of the Christ” ($11 million) and made decent money with “The Butterfly Effect” ($2.6 million) and “Monster” ($2.2 million).

Another resurgent indie, Hopscotch, harvested more than $10.5 million from “Fahrenheit 9/11,” “Touching the Void,” “The Barbarian Invasions” and arty Oz drama “Somersault.”

The Dendy/Becker stable scored nicely with “Super Size Me” and local comedy “Strange Bedfellows.”

Roadshow managing director Joel Pearlman believes that audiences are more open to docus than in previous years, partly because there is a “yearning for truth.” He sees a growing appetite for quality foreign-lingo fare, which he aims to tap into with two Spanish pickups, “The Sea Inside” and “Bad Education.”

Hopscotch’s Troy Lum says, “We’ve found audiences are looking for unique experiences. It doesn’t matter whether the film is English-language, foreign or a docu: It just has to offer something fresh. The market has become polarized between tentpole Hollywood fare and unique specialized films; there is not much in between.”

The DVD market continues to boom, prompting Hopscotch to launch a home entertainment division; it intends to step up the volume of acquisitions to include straight-to-DVD product.

Selling films to the terrestrial networks is problematic for those indies that don’t have output deals with broadcasters. “Free-to-air (sector) is ranking films lower in importance and that makes it tough for all of us,” says Lum.

Australia at a glance
B.O.: $496 million*
Top title: “Shrek 2” (UIP, $36 million*)
Recent pickups:
“Crash” (Icon)
“The Downfall” (Hopscotch)
“Lord of War” (Hoyts)
“Memoirs of a Geisha” (Roadshow)
“Vera Drake” (Dendy)

Titles at AFM
Candy: Heath Ledger, Geoffrey Rush and rising star Abbie Cornish (“Somersault”) star in the saga of two lovers on a journey of lust, addiction and self-destruction. It marks the film debut of legit director Neil Armfield; shooting starts in January. (Renaissance)
Little Fish: Cate Blanchett’s first Aussie film since 1997’s “Oscar and Lucinda.” Helmed by Rowan Woods (“The Boys”), pic’s cast includes Martin Henderson and Sam Neill. In production. (Myriad Pictures)
Three Dollars: Helmer Robert Connolly’s (“The Bank”) latest pic, based on an Elliot Perlman novel. Stars Frances O’Connor and David Wenham. In post. (Becker Films Intl.)

* through September 2004

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