Cinemas swampedby mass of movies

THE BRITISH knack for producing small-budget films that go on to perform spectacularly well at the box office will be at a premium next year.

Hollywood studio heads, who are this week watching nervously as a welter of expensive, pre-Christmas releases hit cinemas in the United States, have woken up to the notion that relatively large profits can be made from small-scale projects.

A survey by Screen International, the film business magazine, has revealed that the biggest returns now come from films with emerging stars and directors, rather than over-packaged "event" movies.

And the news could not come at a more pertinent time. Cinema-goers in the United States are under assault in the run-up to Christmas. During the next six weeks no fewer than 100 new films are to open - 21 of them on one Friday alone.

Across the board, rival studios have invested pounds 1.25bn in the latest batch of releases and they appear to have spent a large part of it on animated action.

Going into festive battle in the United States, are Disney's A Bug's Life, from the team behind Toy Story, Nickelodeon's The Rugrats Movie, featuring the cartoon toddlers, and Dreamworks' Prince of Egypt, an unlikely animated remake of Exodus from Steven Spielberg's burgeoning company.

The follow-up to Babe, called Pig in the City, will carry with it the hopes of many executives at Universal Studios as tension mounts about which film will emerge as the seasonal hit. The film, which has been re- edited at the last minute, stars Mickey Rooney, as well as the eponymous pig, and is one of two new releases that Universal hopes will put the bank balance back into order.

The studio has had a particularly bad year. Early on, audiences failed to take Blues Brothers 2000 to their hearts, while the recent release of the pounds 56m Meet Joe Black, in which Brad Pitt plays the role of Death, has also attracted disappointingly few punters after a wholesale drubbing from American critics.

Perhaps the safest bet for a Christmas winner remains the romantic comedy You've Got Mail, starring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan, who last starred together in Sleepless in Seattle. Made by Warner Brothers, the plot revolves around e-mail technology. Julia Roberts and Susan Sarandon appear in Stepmom, while Enemy of the State, a thriller from Disney, stars Will Smith, Gabriel Byrne and Gene Hackman.

When it comes to the new year, though, Hollywood moguls are turning to lower budget movies. Inevitably, a succession of surprise, small-scale moneyspinners in recent months has concentrated minds on the fact that the public appears to be tiring of formulaic big budget films. And guess what? The Brits are thought to be rather good at that sort of thing.

The Screen International survey points to films like There's Something About Mary, Rush Hour, The Wedding Singer and The Waterboy as the recent big-money earners. All were made for far less than the average studio budget of $53m.

The biggest surprise success of recent years has been The Full Monty, and it seems that it was this rather than the record-breaking Titanic which was setting the true direction of future trends.

Patrick Frater, news editor of Screen International, said the big studios have been looking to take in more foreign films, "and the Brits stand the best chance of any one of being in the forefront of that".