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'Waterworld,' Boosted by Popularity Abroad, Could Finally Be Sailing Into Profitable Seas

LAST summer the post-apocalyptic Kevin Costner film ''Waterworld'' opened to a chorus of media boos. The movie became a $175 million symbol of Hollywood excesses. Calling it a watered-down ''Road Warrior,'' critics predicted that the movie would sink under its record-breaking production costs.

Now the results are in - and it wasn't as bad as predicted. Thanks to enthusiastic audiences overseas, it looks as if the most expensive movie ever made may turn a profit. After grossing $88 million in the United States, the film reeled in $166 million overseas. It has also debuted at No. 2 on ''Video Business'' top 10 rentals.

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Paul Dergarabedian, executive vice president of Exhibitor Relations, isn't surprised by the foreign take. ''Generally, action films translate very well overseas. Also, by the time it was released overseas, the furor had died down, so the film was judged on its own merits.''

But to what extent did the media hurt ''Waterworld''? ''It's hard to say,'' says Mr. Dergarabedian. ''Bad word of mouth can really hurt you.'' Yet an $88 million movie is hardly a flop, he says. ''I think the film did fine. I think it would have done better if the media hadn't condemned it.''

However, Steven Rea, movie critic for the Philadelphia Inquirer, says that criticism was deserved. ''There probably is a tendency of critics to get caught up in the cost and ... the extravagant waste. But putting all that aside, it was still a pretty dismal, uninspired, unoriginal film ... a soggy version of Mad Max with nothing new to offer.''

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