New Zealand exhibitors had their best ever year at the box office in 2002 with 17.8 million ticket sales generating $142.7m

According to the Motion Picture Distributors Association of New Zealand revenues were up 14% on 2001, in part attributable to the number of wet weekends during last year. A $1 increase in ticket prices, and improved facilities were also cited as contributing to the bumper year, which, unsurprisingly saw Peter Jackson's The Fellowship Of The Ring lead the annual box office chart with $14.5m.

And 2003 has already started well, especially for one locally-produced title. Director Niki Caro's Whale Rider opened on January 30 and in the 12 days since has taken 30% of what New Zealanders are spending on cinema tickets.

That equates to a gross of about $821,500 (NZ$1.5m) from 46 screens up to yesterday (February 11), according to representatives of the production company, South Pacific Pictures. New Zealand distributor Buena Vista International has scheduled a May opening for Australia.

Newmarket Films holds North American rights for Whale Rider, which is represented internationally by London-based sales agent The Works.

Meanwhile, the New Zealand Film Commission (NZFC) has sold theatrical rights for director/writer Gaylene Preston's Perfect Strangers to the Bridge Entertainment Group for the Benelux territories and to LNK in Portugal.

The much-anticipated film, billed as "a chilling tale of obsession", stars Sam Neill and Rachel Blake. It is Neill's first New Zealand film since The Piano and only Blake's second big screen outing. She made her debut and won an Australian Film Institute Award for her performance in Lantana, which LNK also released.

Preston is completing post-production with editor John Gilbert, who was nominated for an Academy Award for his work on The Fellowship Of The Ring. Once complete, Perfect Strangers will be released in Australia and New Zealand by 20th Century Fox.