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SUMMER SNEAKS

Only in America

The summer movie season is mainly a U.S. phenomenon. In most other industrialized nations, summertime means the livin' is easy and is spent out of doors whenever possible.

May 11, 1997|David Gritten

LONDON — Summer's here and the time is right . . . to take in a few movies. Maybe several.

Well, that might be true in the United States, but in the rest of the world it ain't necessarily so. Summer movies alone may constitute a billion-dollar industry for Hollywood--but many other countries associate summer months with a sharp decline in movie attendance.

As for other countries creating their own domestic films, tailored specifically for a seasonal market--let's just say that the notion of summer movies seems a peculiarly American one.

Distributors and exhibitors in the U.S. start rubbing their hands in glee just before Memorial Day, anticipating the revenue to be accrued from blockbuster movies over a long summer stretch lasting right through to Labor Day.

But in Italy, for example, things are very different. The whole country lapses into a summer-long siesta, and much activity, including moviegoing, is sharply diminished.

British theater owners spend summers anxiously eyeing overcast skies and hoping fervently for rain. Often, of course, their prayers are answered. If they're not, exhibitors have a lean time--bright sunshine is enough of a novelty and attraction for Brits to enjoy it while they can, rather than spending precious hours cooped up in movie theaters.

In Australia, it's different again. Down under, temperatures soar around Christmas and the coolest month is July. During the months the rest of us call summer, it's mild and pleasant in Australia--an ideal climate for moviegoing. As a result, it's the territory that most closely resembles the U.S. in terms of film releases in the next few months.

Industry figures and observers familiar with international distribution agree that nowhere in the world has a summer movie season, with its own sense of event, quite like America. Those interviewed were also unanimous that two major factors tend to determine the character of summer movies in different territories--climate and air-conditioning.

"It's a problem in many European countries," says Annika Pham, a French trade journalist based here. "In Mediterranean countries especially, it's so hot that a lot [of theaters] close down in summer. There are few releases, and the releases there are tend to be American titles."

In southern Europe, she added, "lots of cinemas are not in good condition. The seats are poor, there's no air-conditioning. It's true in Greece, it's true in Italy, it's even true in parts of the south of France. Those movie theaters in summer are not pleasant places to be."

Hilary Clark, Fox's Paris-based vice president of international publicity, agrees: "For movies, Italy literally shuts down between May and September. In August, many offices shut down totally. It's not until the Venice Film Festival [in September] that the country's back in business. Italians take their [vacations] very seriously."

But Clark, who moved to Paris six years ago, has noticed a shift in French summer movie release patterns: "It also used to be a market that shut down in summer--yet in the last couple of years I've noticed certain distributors have taken a look at the market and decided to put in a big film and scoop the market. A couple of years back, the third "Die Hard" movie was released at the height of the summer, which was regarded as brave. But it performed well."

France is now benefiting from movie chains building new multiplex theaters. many of them air-conditioned or climate-controlled, which makes them more attractive choices for summer audiences.

British screens in summertime are dominated by Hollywood blockbusters, typically released a few weeks after their American openings. For the rest, says Jonathan Rutter of McDonald Rutter, one of London's leading film PR companies, "it tends to be 'let's flush this down the toilet' types of films. There's not much in between. The only other films released are those that don't give you much confidence. But smaller screens still need product, and it's less competitive in summer."

The unpredictable weather makes Britain a tricky summer market. "When is the English summer?" asks Rutter plaintively. "We don't think of May as truly a summer month, but last year 'Fargo' opened May 31, when the weather was absolutely glorious. And the film didn't deliver an audience as well as had been expected. Yet it's July and the early part of August that are the times [distributors] keep clear of."

Rain can be a godsend to British theater owners. Rutter recalled visiting a seaside resort last summer with his family, where a small independent movie theater had posted its show times: "It said, 'Flipper' at 5 and 7--and 3 o'clock if it's a wet afternoon," he said.

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