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Blighty box office tapers off.

LONDON Blighty's exhibs are banking on "Star Wars --Episode I: The Phantom Menace" as well as "The Mummy," "The Matrix" and "Entrapment" to end the box office doldrums.

Despite opening 25 plexes and 266 screens in the U.K. last year, admissions slumped 3%. "1997 was such a good year that year-on-year growth wasn't likely to happen," says Ralf Ludemann of Warner Village Cinemas.

Figures have since dived 16% in the first quarter of 1999 for lack of a breakout pic to match "Titanic." But four of this year's pics have taken enough B.O. coin to match last year's top 10. They are "A Bug's Life," "Shakespeare in Love," "The Rugrats Movie," and "Enemy of the State," which also played the last week of '98. Domestic entries "Little Voice" and "Waking Ned Devine" also performed credibly. But biz went alarmingly quiet until the bow of "Notting Hill."

"We're doing OK. We're not doing as well as we would like," says John Wilkinson, head of trade org the Cinema Exhibitors Assn. "The underlying growth trend is still there. The people who have been in the business long-term in the U.K. know that the business is more cyclical than anywhere else in the world and there are ups and downs even in a normal year."

Making movies a habit

One exhib, Virgin, has launched megapasses to encourage the pic-going habit. A 15[pounds sterling] ($24) pass gives the holder unlimited entry to most of the loop for four weeks, with a quartet in London's West End charging double.

"The take-up in terms of customers buying the pass has been excellent, given the current business levels. In terms of hit rate, it has been very encouraging --more than we basically expected," declares Crispin Lilley, strategic development exec for Virgin.

Rivals like Warner Village have no plans for similar passes. "There's no proof that you get any new audience in," comments Ludemann. "We're interested in growing the market. We're interested in accessing people who are not going so frequently --like the older age group."

More on the way

There's no slowdown in the arrival of new sites and screens this year and next. Warner Village, Odeon and Virgin are most active, with some 40 more plexes in the pipeline.

WV anticipates an April bow for the U.K.'s largest single multi to date, a 30-screener in central England at Birmingham's Star City. A 3-D Imax screen is part of the UCI 20-screen Manchester Printworks scheme, while a 3-D Iwerks "extreme screen" is coming in WV's 16-screen Ellesmere Port development.

A rash of newcomers is seeking to scoop up some of the remaining gravy. This year both Oz's Hoyts and South Africa's Ster Kinekor (trading as Ster Century) enter England while AMC, which began the U.K. plex revolution in '85, re-enters the fray in 2000.

Out-of-towners

The rush is on to close the last remaining gaps in the spread of multis and sew up city center sites to compete with out-of-town plexes.

"We've signed three (sites) already this year," says Lilley. "We've got 12 due to open in the next two-and-a-half to three years. Our strategy has always been to sign only ones that really stack up. We haven't been sucked into paying silly rents. We have passed on sites where people have just started bidding silly money."

Some industryites fear that certain towns are being over-screened. Others see older plexes as out of date and ripe for new competition. Only if admissions bounce dramatically upward again does everyone stand a chance of coming out ahead.
UNITED KINGDOM

Box Office: $863.8 million
Admissions: 136 million
Screens: 2, 564
Sites: 759

MAIN EXHIBITORS   SCREENS  SITES

Odeon               451     80
Virgin              305     35
UCI                 296     30
Warner Village      222     24
Nat'l Amusements    199     15
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No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
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Title Annotation:British box office
Comment:Blighty box office tapers off.(British box office)
Author:EYLES, ALLEN
Publication:Variety
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Jun 21, 1999
Words:631
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