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H’wood’s global warming

B.O. anomaly: Nifty overseas, iffy in U.S.

Hollywood’s global “big bang” theory is paying off.

The notion of unleashing blockbusters day-and-date around the world with bigger print runs and mega-sized marketing and promotional budgets powered foreign grosses to new heights in 2004.

Paradoxically, admissions in the U.S. were down 1% year-on-year while audiences in countries like Spain and France returned to the movies in record numbers.

The surge in overseas admissions helped bail out such risky and costly ventures as “Troy,” “King Arthur” and “The Last Samurai,” though anomalies still confounded international distributors.

Stateside hits like “The Bourne Supremacy,” “The Grudge” and “Princess Diaries 2” failed to bottle the magic overseas; Steven Spielberg’s remarkable track record couldn’t carry “Terminal” to its anticipated numbers. The jury is still out on “Polar Express,” “Alexander,” “National Treasure” and “Lemony Snicket.”

More importantly, the jury is still out on China and India, two of the biggest potential markets for Hollywood product which, despite much ballyhoo, remained frustratingly impervious in 2004.

On the plus side, blockbusters like “Shrek 2” and “Spider-Man 2” and veritable phenoms like “Harry Potter 3” and “The Lord of the Rings” did deliver big-time, all minting more moolah abroad than at home in the U.S.

Warners’ third Potter installment raked in a stunning $540 million at foreign wickets during the 12-month frame, while DreamWorks’ “Shrek 2” came away with $465 million in overseas grosses. “LOTR: The Return of the King” took in $425 million in 2004 (added to its $317 million in 2003).

Though final numbers won’t be available until Jan. 3, at least eight Hollywood movies grossed more than $200 million abroad, and an additional 16 passed the $100 million mark — an impressive if not unprecedented feat.

Box office analysts at the studios were reluctant at year’s end to hazard final figures, but several said foreign grosses were tracking (at the end of November) 15% better than last year and would come in above $9 billion. In 2003 total foreign B.O. for the Hollywood majors, including DreamWorks, Miramax and New Line, was $8.1 billion.

(Domestically, the final tally was on track to hit $9 billion, down from the $9.16 billion total in 2003.)

Relatively undeveloped markets like Russia, Turkey and Brazil came on strongly, with new multiplexes helping to lure auds into more pleasant, accessible venues. UIP became in April the first major to open a distrib outpost in Moscow, signaling the potential of that vast market.

But just to put the repatriated dollars in the proper light: The rosiness of the figures is partially due to strong currencies like the euro, yen and pound.

And, in some cases, higher ticket prices contributed to the uptick while admissions remained flat. London-based Informa Media calculates that the average worldwide ticket price is $2.68 — $6.05 in North America, $6.01 in Europe and 70¢ in Asia Pacific, which accounts for 60% of worldwide admissions but only 15% of worldwide gross. The average worldwide price is up 4¢ from a year ago and just over a dollar since 1995.

Still, a lot of Hollywood folks who labor in the international trenches have something to celebrate.

Warner Bros. became the first studio ever to reach the $2 billion foreign gross benchmark, doing so at the end of November, with Disney seemingly nipping at its heels.

UIP, which handles Paramount, Universal and DreamWorks titles abroad, also reported it had passed the $2 billion mark. Thanks to Spidey, Sony had much to crow about. Paramount, however, continued to disappoint, racking up less than $300 million at overseas moviehouses.

“The breadth of product worked well for us this year: Our studio’s global approach to making, casting and releasing movies really did pay off,” Warner Bros. Pics Intl. prexys Veronika Kwan-Rubinek and Sue Kroll tell Variety. Three Warner movies passed the $300 million mark in foreign grosses and another three jumped the $100 million hurdle.

The two respective distribution and marketing toppers at WB say that epic sagas with universal themes seem to resonate especially well with foreign auds; but even comedies like “Something’s Gotta Give” (which amassed $142 million abroad), can, they add, surprise on the upside if handled smartly.

Meanwhile, local pics like “Dreamship Surprise” in Germany, “Les Choristes” in France, “Night Watch” in Russia and “Howl’s Moving Castle” in Japan held their own against the Yank onslaught, but few foreign pics traveled well outside their own borders.

Neither Britain nor Italy hatched anything like “Bend It like Beckham” or “Life Is Beautiful.” The Aussies are even rethinking what projects to subsidize as a result of the measly money made by indigenous fare Down Under.

The U.S. majors themselves successfully got in on the local action by backing pics like “A Very Long Engagement” (Warners) in France, “Seven Dwarfs” (Universal) in Germany and “Kung Fu Hustle” (Sony) in Hong Kong.

Although each territory had its own peculiarities — Italians went nuts for “Donnie Darko,” Hong Kongers couldn’t resist “The Day After Tomorrow,” Korean movies played well in Japan — certain similarities could be discerned across the board.

The trend by the American majors to unleash their biggest pics nearly day-and-date around the world and to do so with ever larger print runs and marketing budgets will probably solidify in 2005, at least for top titles. Moreover, the studios will likely intensify their attempt to spread out release dates more evenly, guaranteeing strong titles on marquees every weekend.

Not even European soccer championships in June nor the Olympics in August could derail the foreign moviegoing machine, though it did make for tighter, more competitive windows in those two periods.

Sony senior VP of international operations Jay Sands emphasizes the complexities of the day-and-date approach, pointing out that while it may work for big-budget franchises, the simultaneous release deprives foreign markets of talent visits (since those folks are Stateside tubthumping the pic in question). Hence every marketing campaign has to be planned and scrutinized way in advance in order to maximize the potential for any given movie.

“Shrek 2,” “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban,” and “LOTR” all benefited from massive marketing campaigns, and each will see its foreign gross exceed domestic take.

In Spain, Mexico and Brazil in particular, the majors’ muscular approach — and new plexes which have come onstream — helped herd auds to the wickets. Even local distribs are wising up, going for bigger, more concentrated release patterns for smaller pics.

But despite the revamping of hardtops in Italy, locals there still preferred the beaches to the moviehouses during the summer.

The DVD market continued to expand abroad and, studio execs contend, this has only served to further whet the foreign appetite for American product and talent.

Ten Hollywood tentpoles made it past the $30 million benchmark in Japan, but an impressive 23 local movies met the $10 million yardstick for domestic fare in that country — a healthy jump from the 18 that hit this mark the previous year.

As for the two indie oddities of the Yank film year, audiences in Catholic countries like Italy, Brazil and Mexico flocked to Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” while, in Britain and France, Michael Moore’s “Fahrenheit 9/11” packed them in.

Here is a rundown of what happened in key territories around the globe.

UNITED KINGDOM

It was the year of the sequel in Blighty, with the top five places in the B.O. charts occupied by retreads of previous hits.

The success of “Shrek 2,” “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban,” “Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason,” “Spider-Man 2” and “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” (a holdover from 2003) helped U.K. cinema admissions to resume their 20-year upswing, after a 5% dip in 2003.

Entering December, ticket sales were up 6%, but with signs of softness in the Christmas season, annual admissions will probably reach 174 million, short of their 2002 peak of 176 million. Box office grosses were up 7% to Dec. 9, on course for a year-end tally of $1.6 billion.

With “Shrek 2” on top of the charts at $92 million, Brits continued their love affair with CGI animation. “Shark Tale” also defied the critics and industry opinion to gross a healthy $44 million in seventh place.

But Pixar, whose movies usually outperform in Blighty, will be slightly disappointed with “The Incredibles,” whose rave reviews didn’t quite translate into equally boffo B.O., although with $37 million after four weeks, the pic hardly qualifies as a flop.

Perhaps the pic was hurt by its absence of talking animals. Both “Scooby-Doo 2” and “Garfield” proved that Brits are suckers for cats and dogs.

Hollywood thrillers fared less well, with “The Bourne Supremacy,” “Collateral,” “The Village” and “The Terminal” all soft compared with their Stateside showings. Nonetheless, the “Bourne” sequel oustripped the first installment by a good 30%.

Market share for British movies was up sharply to 22%, vs. 14% at the same point in 2003. But this was entirely down to the success of big-budget H’wood studio-backed movies, such as “Harry Potter” and “Bridget Jones.”

The year lacked a low-budget local breakout to match the likes of “Bend It Like Beckham” or “Calendar Girls” in previous years. Indeed, for Brit producers, the year was a litany of failure.

In the first 11 months, the market share for the major U.S. distribs held steady at around 80%. Indie distribs made up for their lack of luck with British movies by enjoying significant success with U.S. pics.

Icon’s “The Passion of the Christ” didn’t get near to scaling its Stateside peaks, but it was still the highest-grossing indie release of 2004 (given that the final “LOTR” installment was released in 2003). Optimum’s “Fahrenheit 9/11” also smashed records for a doc, despite falling short of its U.S. performance.

It was tough sledding as ever for subtitled fare.

“Hero” was the top-grossing foreign-lingo title with $3.8 million, and “The Motorcycle Diaries” managed $2.7 million, but there were no European movies in the top 100.

The year saw a wave of consolidation hit the exhibition sector.

Odeon Cinemas and UCI were snapped up by venture capitalist Guy Hands. Blackstone swooped for Cine-UK and UGC. With Vue Entertainment created in 2003 by the merger of Warner Village and SBC, British theaters are now largely controlled by three owners, all of them venture capital groups.

Despite the good news at the B.O. and the buoyancy of the DVD biz, distribs remain gloomy about the impact of piracy.

“We may be projecting signs of rude health, but we’re being overrun,” says Fox U.K. topper Simon Hewlett.

— Adam Dawtrey

GERMANY

The country’s box office in 2004 will likely reach 1 billion euros ($1.3 billion) as a slew of local hits and U.S. blockbusters ends a three-year trend of declining revenues.

Key to the robust turnout were impressive performances by Teutonic pics “Dreamship Surprise,” “Seven Dwarfs” and “Downfall,” which accounted for three of the year’s top 10 films.

Michael Herbig’s sci-fi spoof “Dreamship Surprise” — with $68 million — was the second-biggest hit of 2004 after “LOTR: The Return of the King,” which pulled $96 million.

Sven Unterwaldt’s fairy-tale sendup “Seven Dwarfs” ($46 million) and Oliver Hirschbiegel’s Adolf Hitler drama “Downfall” ($39 million) ranked fourth and sixth among 2004’s biggest moneymakers, marking the first time in recent memory that three German films played such a vital role in the country’s annual B.O. result.

Indeed, through Nov. 11, German films alone grossed more than $225 million — an increase of more than 50% from the previous year.

“Seven Dwarfs,” however, was co-produced by Universal Pics Germany, which also handled domestic distribution and home entertainment rights.

Of Germany’s three local hits, only “Downfall” has become a serious international commodity: Pic has sold in more than 50 countries, including North America.

“It was a very strong year for German film,” notes Arne Schmidt of multiplex chain Cinemaxx, adding that strong marketing campaigns helped the pics compete against major U.S. titles.

“We also had consistently strong Hollywood blockbusters throughout much of the year, starting with ‘Troy’ and ‘The Day After Tomorrow,’ then ‘Harry Potter,’ ‘Shrek 2’ and ‘Spider-Man 2.’ ”

Grossing $53 million, “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” followed “Dreamship” at No. 3. “Troy” garnered $39 million, “Shrek 2” ($37 million) and “The Day After Tomorrow” ($34 million).

The success of “Seven Dwarfs” and “Shrek 2,” and more recently “Bridget Jones,” helped keep UIP at the top with a 20% market share (through Dec. 5). Warner, boasting “LOTR: The Return of the King,” “Harry Potter” and “Troy,” was close behind with 19%. Local indie Constantin, which distributed “Dreamship” and “Downfall,” had a lock on third place with 15%.

With “Kingdom of Heaven,” “Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith,” “Batman Begins” and “War of the Worlds” coming to theaters next year, 2005 is sure to see boffo B.O. figures.

As for homegrown fare, exhibs are placing their bets on Leander Haussmann’s East German military comedy “NVA” and Nibelung spoof “Siegfried” from “Seven Dwarfs” director Sven Unterwaldt.

— Ed Meza

JAPAN

It was a very good year for Japanese films at the box office, while U.S. pics slipped slightly. At the same time, Asian films, especially Korean pics, made inroads.

When the final tally is in, 10 Hollywood tentpoles will have made it past the $30 million mark, the same number as during the previous year, with “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” ranking first with $130 million.

Only “The Last Samurai” did better, with $132 million, but its release started in December 2003.

Other top performers from across the Pacific were “Finding Nemo” ($106 million) and also released in December 2003, “LOTR: The Return of the King” ($99 million) and “The Matrix Revolutions” ($64 million). Given the P&A spent and the stars involved, pics such as “Troy,” “Van Helsing” and “Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow” disappointed. “Spider-Man 2” came in at $63 million, almost $10 million short of the first installment in 2002.

The number of Japanese films reaching ¥1 billion ($9.6 million) in grosses, the yardstick for local success, should stand at 23 by year’s end, compared with 18 in 2003.

Even without any megahit by midyear like “Bayside Shakedown 2” (¥17 billion in 2003), films like “Crying Out Love,” ($81 million), “Be With You” ($40 million), “Quill” ($23 million) and “Howl’s Moving Castle” (probably $100 million by year¹s end) more than compensated for that.

The B.O. share of Japanese films should therefore reach a new high in 2004, well exceeding the 33% of the total for the previous year.

Asian films broadened their take, with Japanese distributors keen to exploit the continuing audience fascination with everything Korean.

“Tae Guk Gi” (called “Brotherhood” in Japan) was the first Korean film to start on a generous 300 screens, pushed by a $7 million P&A campaign, even though it disappointed in the end and barely crossed the ¥1 billion mark.

“Everybody Has Secrets” and “Untold Scandal” did well, although none of those rose to become exceptional breakout hits.

“Japan still loves Hollywood films, but many U.S. movies are very repetitive,” says a distrib exec in Tokyo. “People want new stuff, and they find it in Japanese and Asian films.”

With local indie distribs often struggling to ward off heavy losses with the release of major American pics, and with the increasing audience appetite for local fare obvious, many lesser U.S. films which would have secured a Japanese distrib in the past will be left out.

Given their costs, Japanese and Asian films promise a much better return on investment.

— Lukas Schwarzacher

FRANCE

After dipping 5% in 2003, the Gallic box office rebounded with a vengeance in 2004 to reach its highest level in 20 years.

Ticket sales were up about 10%, with end-of-year figures forecast to come in at 190 million-195 million admissions ($1.4 billion-$1.5 billion).

“It is incredible to think that we are back to pre-1980-1990s crisis levels when the market is so different today,” enthuses a rep from the French National Federation of Cinema. “The last time a score like that was achieved, in 1984, France only had three TV channels, and Canal Plus was just starting up.”

The hike was driven by strong performances from Gallic pics — in France local fare always makes the difference, whether up or down — with five Gallic pics in the top 10, including first-placed “Les Choristes” and “A Very Long Engagement.”

A small-budget pic by first-time helmer Christophe Barratier, “Les Choristes” grossed $66 million, its 8.5 million ticket sales approaching the 9 million achieved by Gallic hit “Amelie” in 2001.

As a direct result of the French uptick, U.S. fare’s market share was down (47% for the first 11 months, compared with 38% for French films), but in an established French pattern the total gross for American films remained relatively stable in relation to previous years.

In the first 11 months of 2004, it rose slightly to $638 million, compared with $630 million in the same period last year.

Both for U.S. and French films, there were nice surprises and nasty snafus.

Top B.O. slots went to “Shrek 2” ($56 million), “Spider-Man 2 ($41 million) and “Brother Bear” ($28 million), while pics that fell short of the French benchmark 1 million ticket sales ($7.8 million) included “Alien vs. Predator”, “Master and Commander”, “The Chronicles of Riddick” “Cold Mountain” and “Texas Chainsaw Massacre.”

More French cinemagoers turned out for Michael Moore’s “Fahrenheit 9/11,” which grossed $19 million, than for Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” ($14 million).

For Gallic pics, honors went to Jean-Jacques Annaud’s “Two Brothers”; the wacky “Podium,” starring Benoit Poelvoorde as a pop star impersonator; and the “Jackass”-like gross-out comedy “The 11 Commandments,” all of which made it into the top 10.

Smaller hits included “Marriages,” which grossed $16 million, and “Malabar Princess,” which grossed $11 million.

But there were also plenty of Gallic also-rans, across all categories of film.

Jan Kounen’s mystic Western “Blueberry” was the year’s costliest flop, grossing less than $6 million. Alain Chabat’s prehistoric comedy “RRRrrrr!!!,” one of the year’s most keenly awaited laffers, was expected to do better than $17 million, as was actioner “Arsene Lupin,” which brought in less than $10 million.

Gallic exhibs claim some of the credit for the upward trend, pointing out that infrastructure investments of $2 billion over the past two decades have made French moviehouses more modern, pleasant places to go to.

Annual revenues in the Gallic exhibition business amount to $600 million a year.

Industryites are upbeat about what 2005 holds in store.

Major releases in the first couple of months include “The Aviator,” “Danny the Dog,” the Franco-British toon “The Magic Roundabout” and “Espace detente,” a spinoff of the Gallic TV series “Camera Cafe.”

— Alison James

SPAIN

The year will go down as a banner B.O. blowout in Spain.

Through Nov. 28, box office and admissions rose 12% and 9% respectively, to $800 million and 123 million, compared with the same period in 2003.

December will be soft. But 2004 tix sold should still climb some 5% to near 2001’s 18-year-high of 147 million and B.O. to $910 million.

The past 12 months break two years of sliding admissions — and rep a vindication for the studios’ day-and-date, or near-date, release strategy.

Six of this year’s top 10 — led by “Shrek 2” ($38 million) and “Troy” ($27 million) — bowed in the summer, traditionally Spain’s worst B.O. period.

“There were more hits this year, and they benefited from the proximity of their U.S. launch,” says Nielsen EDI Spain managing director Jose Manuel Pimienta.

“The Last Samurai” ($25 million) and “I, Robot” ($19 million) both overperformed, underscoring the value of Tom Cruise and Will Smith’s visits to the country.

Terrorist thriller “El Lobo” ($9 million) proved a local sleeper; Alejandro Amenabar’s “The Sea Inside” cumed $25 million through Dec.19.

Spain’s B.O. bonanza will mainly benefit U.S. studios.

Per a Motion Picture Assn. report, Spain was already the fastest-growing theatrical market in Europe last year, building 27%.

Massively frontloaded — even “Ocean’s Twelve” bowed on 425 copies — films make more B.O. when distribs’ cut of the gross is highest – a first-weekend 60% in Spain.

Columbia TriStar’s Spanish production operation debuted auspiciously with its first production, Juan Calvo’s Paz Vega starrer “Say I Do,” making a strong $4 million.

WB’s local production division has three director-driven productions with commercial potential in the pipeline: “Queens,” “Habana Blues” and “Oculto.”

Re-energizing a debt-torn sector, new distrib houses launched, led by mainstream buyer On Pics and boutiques Notro Films and Baditri.

But exhibition is nearing saturation: Spain’s sector has mushroomed from 3,700 screens in 2001 to a current 4,302.

“New screens are being built in malls, but central-city closures of more traditional sites is increasing,” cinema programmer Roberto Bayon says.

— John Hopewell

ITALY

Admissions in Italy rose 15% in 2004 as plexes continued to sprout and Hollywood maintained its hold over more than 60% of the pie.

Local product share also remained stable, tallying 22% of returns. Yet homegrown hits were fewer, compensated for somewhat by midrange titles.

Box office grew 12% to $790 million with an expected total of 125 million tickets sold.

Despite these positive indicators, Italy is still underperforming.

Though screens grew more than 20% to 2,800 — with plexes now accounting for nearly 50% of ticket sales — there remained a dramatic dive in summer attendance, which caused a glut of product the rest of the year.

Still, the outlook is upbeat.

“Multiplexes are finally kicking in,” BVI Italy topper Paul Zonderland says. “I think we will now be seeing a real summer season in 2005.”

This year Italians flocked in record-breaking droves to “The Passion of the Christ,” which came in second, bested only by the final “LOTR” installment.

Jesus pic was followed by “Spider-Man 2,” “The Last Samurai” and “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban,” all in the $18 million-$25 million range.

Romantic comedies traditionally click in Italy. But “Shall We Dance” still did quite a number, scoring $16 million and outperforming “The Day After Tomorrow” “Scary Movie 3” and “Van Helsing.”

Yet the biggest surprise came from vintage indie darling “Donnie Darko” which via Italo distrib Moviemax pulled in $3 million, about six times its 2001 Stateside gross.

Duds included “I, Robot,” “The Bourne Supremacy” and “50 First Dates.”

In a year plagued by funding cuts for local productions, the big breakout pic was “Don’t Move,” helmed by actor-director Sergio Castellitto and starring Penelope Cruz as a destitute Albanian. Drama based on a bestselling book became the top local title, soaring over crowdpleaser comedies.

The other notable local was Davide Ferrario’s no-budget “After Midnight,” a tribute to film buffery which had a surprisingly strong local run and got a Stateside release.

While a handful of hits usually makes up most of Italy’s B.O. share, there were more movies this go-round that crossed the x1 million line that divides a winner from a flop.

Among these so-so’s were romantic comedy “Love Returns” and teen romancer “Three Steps Over Heaven,” both co-produced by the local Warner Bros. arm, which now has the crime epic “Romanzo Criminale” in post.

Euro pics that clicked were “Bad Education” and “Crimson Rivers 2.” “The Motorcycle Diaries” and China’s “Hero” were the top performers among other non-U.S foreign fare.

— Nick Vivarelli

RUSSIA

Box office in Russia and its satellite territories continued on an upward path in 2004 and looks set to continue its climb over the next couple of years.

Total grosses for the year (including neighboring CIS territories, which are largely controlled from Moscow) should reach $260 million, well above the $190 million for 2003, according to Alexander Semenov, publisher of local industry trade mag Russian Film Business Today.

Development of multiplexes — most recently a second Moscow site from National Amusements-affiliated KinoStar — continues apace, and there are plenty of other local exhibs testing the market, especially in Russia’s regions.

Proliferation of screens may eventually bring down ticket prices, but it’s also inspiring bigger print runs: Whereas a year ago, Hollywood movies could expect to go out on 300 prints, 400 copies is no longer unusual — and 500 will come in a short enough time.

Affiliated markets like Ukraine also continue to grow at an impressive clip: As many as 50 prints can now work well in that territory, says Ruben Dishdishyan, head of distribr Central Partnership.

Advances in other states, like Kazakhstan, Belarus and the Caucasus, may be further away but they are still moving in the same direction.

The phenom of the year was the success of local pics, epitomized by the summer release of Timur Bekmambetov’s “Night Watch,” a fantasy-thriller that took in north of $16 million. Pic beat out “LOTR: The Return of the King” for the year’s No. 1 slot.

And in a market where fantasy works noticeably better than actioners, it’s likely that the “Night Watch” sequel will also do sizable business — especially given that it will be backed by strong promotional support from producer Channel One and distrib Gemini Film.

With four local titles in the top 30 grossers, it’s not an isolated phenom, either.

Top indie result went to Central Partnership for its 50-print release of “The Passion of the Christ,” which raked in a remarkable $3.5 million.

— Tom Birchenough

AUSTRALIA

The past year Down Under was good, great or terrible, depending on your viewpoint.

It was good for the industry overall, with grosses predicted to hit an unprecedented A$900 million ($675 million). That would rep a 4.5% uptick on 2003, marking four consecutive years of growth after a dip in 2000.

Distribs say the gain in admissions was likely to be 2%-3%, factoring out ticket price increases.

A mature exhib market after years of expansion, Oz saw a slight boost in the number of screens in 2004 and now boasts 1,910.

It was a banner year for Hollywood as U.S. films accounted for 85%-89% of the market. That doesn’t include several hits funded by U.S. studios such as “Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason,” “LOTR: The Return of the King” and “Love Actually.”

The indies weren’t shut out, scoring a healthy number of breakthroughs, most notably Icon’s “Passion” and “The Butterfly Effect,” “Fahrenheit 9/11,” “Touching the Void,” and “Super Size Me.”

“We’ve seen a proliferation of distribution companies over the past 18 months, but most majors have performed very well,” said Mike Selwyn, managing director of UIP, the market leader.

Most U.S. films racked up B.O. locally that mirrored their U.S. results; distribs use a rule of thumb which holds that the typical hit should make in Oz about 9% of its Stateside gross, ignoring the exchange rate.

But there were some significant overachievers led by “Shrek 2,” “Troy” and “Shall We Dance” as well as some conspicuous underachievers — “The Terminal,” “National Treasure” and “The Forgotten” among them.

For Aussie producers, it was a blah year as local films’ market share slumped to 1.2%, the lowest for 30 years and way down on the average share of 5.7% in the past 10 years. The 16 Oz titles released in 2004 collectively grossed just $8.1 million.

“The films released last year did not engage audiences,” says Brian Rosen, chief exec of the peak funding body, Film Finance Corp. Australia. “That’s partly why we introduced a new evaluation process: to try to find projects that are distinctive and will have a broader audience potential. We’re being more interventionist in determining the kind of films that are made.”

— Don Groves

MEXICO

Last year marked a long-awaited recovery at the Mexican box office, vindicating an aggressive philosophy that distribs have been developing over the past three years.

Call it the “Super Size Me” technique: Bigger is better — more releases, more prints, more marketing, more red carpets, more buzz.

The result: more behinds on seats. After three consecutive years of flagging results, distribs expect 2004 to total a record 6 billion pesos ($530 million), up from just over 5 billion pesos in 2003.

And while that can partly be attributed to ticket-price hikes, much more has to do with banking, in a major way, on rapid releases of big pics.

The year’s biggest, “Shrek 2” brought in $28 million on the strength of a nationwide release of more than 800 prints, which is enormous for a country that used to consider 300 copies a huge risk.

It’s the same story for other successes like “The Day After Tomorrow,” “The Passion of the Christ” and “Spider-Man 2,” all of which bowed with 500 copies and surpassed the vaunted 200 million peso ($18 million) mark, the Mexican equivalent of the $100 million gross.

“We need more copies to bring in money more quickly,” says Jose Juan Hernandez, general director of 20th Century Fox Films of Mexico.

“There are seven or eight bows a week, at least one of them big. You’ve got to get stuff out there just as big.”

Big has paid off hugely for Fox, which saw a whopping 52% B.O. increase in the past year. Studio has decided to concentrate more energy than ever on big releases, including the upcoming “Star Wars” sequel and “Fantastic Four.”

Big has also proved attractive for Mexican films.

The year’s top performer, “Ladies Night,” was a whopper, and runners-up “Matando Cabos” and “Un dia sin mexicanos” (A Day Without a Mexican), all bowed with more than 300 copies, unheard of for homemade pics.

What falls off the menu, however, is medium-budgeted fare.

Distribs say that while small films still dangle hopes of sleeper profit margins, midsized pics (in the $30 million to $50 million range) are increasingly a bad bet in this blockbuster-crazed market.

Fox’s “Man on Fire,” which was filmed in Mexico City, is a good example. Despite considerable buzz, the midsized actioner delivered unimpressive results and only reinforced opinions that upsizing is the future.

“We’re not going to stop showing midsized movies,” says Fox’s Hernandez, “but we’re betting much more on the big franchise films.”

— Ken Bensinger

BRAZIL

Prompted by an uptick in the country’s total screen count, Brazil’s film market significantly expanded in 2004, a trend that is expected to continue in 2005.

U.S. pics had a strong performance in 2004 while local pics lost market share.

According to local film marketing firm Filme B, the country’s total B.O. take should reach 750 million reais ($275 million), up 16% over 2003.

Attendance totaled 112 million in 2004, a 10% increase from the previous year.

Hollywood fare led the market expansion in 2004.

“Spider-Man 2” was the top draw, grossing $18 million, surprisingly more than “Spider-Man.”

But the big surprise was “The Passion of the Christ,” a Fox release, which grossed $16 million and placed second on the year’s ranking.

Analysts attributed the “Passion’s” unexpected performance to the size of the local Catholic community and the controversy surrounding the pic.

Brazilian pics did not perform in 2004 as well as they did in 2003, a landmark year for the local production sector. Local pics’ combined attendance fell 27% in 2004, in relation to 2003. Their share of the total market was off 16% in 2004, down from the 21% share in 2003.

Rodrigo Saturnino Braga, general manager of Columbia Buena Vista, forecasts the film market in Brazil will grow in 2005 at a rate of 10% to 12%.

“The box office increase in Brazil is directly related to the expansion of the local exhibition sector,” he says.

With just 1,990 hardtops for a population of 185 million, Brazil is one of the world’s most underscreened countries. In order to cope with the demand for screens, the exhibition sector has grown for the past years at an annual average pace of 8%.

— Marcelo Cajueiro

HONG KONG

“The Day After Tomorrow” might not have done great in the U.S., but auds in Hong Kong blasted the pic to the top of the box office in 2004.

“Hong Kong audiences love this kind of big sci-fi, catastrophic movie and how mankind can resolve this kind of problem with nature,” says Audrey Lee, who is in charge of distribution for Edko. Exhib has 11 theaters with 53 screens in the territory.

Pic brought in $5.5 million, followed by “Harry Potter” at $4.3 million and “Spider-Man 2” at $4.1 million.

The top local film and No. 4 for total B.O. was “Fantasia,” helmed by Wai Ka-Fai. The old-school Cantonese comedy brought in $3.2 million.

Next in line at $2.7 million was “New Police Story” starring Jackie Chan. This pic surpassed Chan’s recent Hollywood releases “Around the World in 80 Days” and “Tuxedo,” a result that was unexpected, Lee says.

The biggest surprise came from a Japanese film about a guide dog. “Quill” is currently sitting at No. 9 with $1.8 million, but may be surpassed by “Terminal,” which is still showing in theaters.

Through Dec. 6, 63 local pics were released with a combined gross of $49 million, according to the Motion Picture Industry Assn. of Hong Kong; there were 168 foreign releases with $59 million in combined grosses.

Woody Tsung, chief exec at the MPIA, estimates the year’s final tally would hit $115 million, which he says was a conservative guess.

With fewer than 50 local pics expected for 2005, Lee still anticipates it to be a stronger year with big U.S. releases like “Star Wars” and “The Incredibles.”

Local pics, while fewer, are also expected to pack a punch, starting with “Kung Fu Hustle,” which bowed locally Dec. 23.

— Vicki Rothrock