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European box office steady in ’08

Despite economy, foreign business stands firm

LONDON The economy may have been hurtling headlong toward recession this year, but most European territories held steady at the box office.

According to Variety research, 2008 year-end admissions and grosses are on track to outperform 2007 in Germany, one of the biggest markets outside the U.S. In other major markets, such as the U.K. and France, results were fairly even with the record-breaking 2007 box office. However, Italy and Spain lost ground.

“In local currency, cinemagoing seems to be holding up very strongly,” says Andrew Cripps, president, Paramount Pictures Intl., crediting the wide appeal of releases: “The big action tentpole has done phenomenally well this year — we had ‘Iron Man,’ ‘Indiana Jones,’ ‘Hancock’ and ‘The Dark Knight.’ ”

Adds David Kosse, president of Universal Pictures Intl.: “With the exception of ‘Welcome to the Sticks’ in France, it has not been a big foreign-language production year,” and he notes that “in Germany, the top three films and eight of the top 10 movies are English-language … and in Spain all the top 10 are English-language.”

In Blighty, cinema has proved recession-resistant. Up to and including Dec. 14, overall box office takings were level with 2007 — no mean feat considering U.K. box office grosses last year totaled the highest ever, a healthy $1.78 billion, up 8% from 2006.

“Both admissions and grosses will almost definitely show increases, which is a fantastic story given the economic doom and gloom,” Film Distributors’ Assn. chief exec Mark Batey says optimistically.

During the last recession in the early ’90s, booming multiplex construction fueled the box office. This time, it’s fueled by product.

“Mamma Mia!” (Universal) has become the biggest-grossing pic ever in the territory (surpassing “Titanic”), with “Sex and the City” (Entertainment) and “High School Musical 3” (Disney) also drawing well with femmes.

But it hasn’t only been girly, feel-good fare keeping the Brit tills ringing. “Quantum of Solace” and “The Dark Knight,” which both boast brooding, moody characters that look as stressed as cash-strapped Brits — are the second- and third-biggest earners of 2008.

Solid Blighty biz has been matched in Germany, where through Dec. 14 total grosses have reached $739.3 million, up 9% compared with the first 50 weeks of 2007. Strong perf is thanks largely to “Mamma Mia!,” “Solace” and “Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa” as well as earlier hits like “Hancock,” “Earth,” “The Dark Knight,” and “Indiana Jones 4.”

Local exhibs are expecting similar year-end business this annum with “Escape 2 Africa” as well as “The Day the Earth Stood Still,” “Inkheart,” local comedy “1½ Knights — In Search of the Ravishing Princess Herzelinde” (which stars local superstar Til Schweiger), “Australia,” “Bedtime Stories” and local drama “Buddenbrooks: The Decline of a Family.”

“Christmas is a traditional moviegoing time for German families, and with people tightening their belts due to the poor economy, it’s still something a family can do together,” one booker notes.

French 2008 cinema biz is also looking capable of matching or bettering last year.

According to Centre National de la Cinematographie estimates for January-November, admissions were 171.05 million, up 6.7% from the 160.3 million totted up for the same period in 2007, while grosses in dollar terms are flat. With a whammo $180.7 million, local laffer “Welcome to the Sticks” is the biggest-grossing film of the year by far, earning almost as much as the next five biggest movies combined.

In Spain, 2008 year-end admissions and grosses are not expected to match 2007 numbers, but that is mainly due to exchange-rate changes rather than particularly poor box office performance. Up to Dec. 14, admissions stood at 100 million, according to Spain’s official film body, ICAA. Last year, there were 117 million total admissions. Spanish bookers are expecting an upbeat festive season.

“People might buy cheaper champagne, but they still want to see movies. The recession could actually prove a good reason to want to be entertained,” a local exhib suggests.

In Europe’s boot, the picture is less sunny. Through Dec. 14, Italo box office is down 5% in terms of both admissions (down to 89 million) and grosses (down to $727 million), according to local compiler Cinetel.

But the drop isn’t considered catastrophic, since it follows a banner 2007, and a strong Christmas lineup is expected to narrow the drop to about 3% by year’s end.

Top Italo 2008 grosser is “Kung Fu Panda” ($22 million), followed by “I Am Legend” ($18 million) and local laffer “Big, Bad, and … Verdone,” which did $16.7 million.

Nick Vivarelli in Rome, Ed Meza in Berlin, Emilio Mayorga in Madrid and David Hayhurst in Paris contributed to this report.

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