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NICHE PIX NOTCH WIN IN SUMMER B.O. RACE

It was a record summer at the box office, but just barely. On Sept. 4, the 1995 season registered $2.12 billion, or a slim 1% better than the previous record set a year ago. Despite the box office bump, estimated admissions declined 0.4% to 491.2 million from 1994.

The major gains came in the specialized arena. And the oft heard industry adage that “it’s a product-driven marketplace” rang true. Niche appeal releases were dominated by strong titles that expanded that audience by approximately 22%. The only thing truly preventing further growth will be availability of screens. The glut of releases from the majors severely cramps access to most multiplexes.

Summer has long been a mix of juggernaut titles and a dumping ground for weaker product. The thinking behind releasing studio fodder between Memorial and Labor Days – particularly August – is that a pic’s limited commercial appeal will be enhanced at the box office simply because of the larger percentage of people with leisure time.

To achieve just the right balance between these two streams one must pray for serendipity. It didn’t occur in 1995. Rather, potent titles were clustered in the first half of the season, with too many marginal releases clumped together in the latter weeks.

There was an increase of four wide releases this summer, and more specialized product debuted in the Memorial to Labor Day corridor. Five films will wind up with domestic B.O. in excess of $100 million, but none is likely to reach $200 million. That compares to a scorecard of eight and two respective milestones in 1994.

One senior distribution exec said he could “not believe how quickly the summer has gone.” He added that it also seemed like the most unmemorable hot season of all time.

But people have short memories. The frame actually began quite dynamically and showed real vigor for the first half of the season. Warner Bros.’ “Batman Forever” opening weekend posted a record $52.8 million. However, perhaps as an omen of things to come, it could not topple “Jurassic Park’s” crown for best first-week box office.

It was unquestionably a front-loaded summer with early returns indicating a final tally some 4%-5% better than the record holder. That situation changed midseason and industry soothsayers began to predict that the period would reach the finish line slightly behind the 1994 figure.

The second half had only “Waterworld” and “Mortal Kombat” as possible $100 million grossers and neither will reach that domestic B.O. level. The most potent titles in the bottom half of the season were steady earners that will wind up in the books with between $50 million and $70 million.

The market-share crown turned into a tight three-way race that wasn’t settled until the start of the final weekend. Though final numbers may vary slightly, the win, place and show positions went respectively to Universal, Warner Bros, and Buena Vista. The margin between first and third spots was less than 0.5% with Universal commanding 18.5% on a box office just north of $392 million.

Universal and Warner Bros, had sizable boosts from a year ago when both companies had lackluster seasons. Buena Vista, which held the 1994 crown, slipped back about 16% in part due to the tamer showing of “Pocahontas” compared to “The Lion King.”

Third and fourth spots also were closely contested. Fox finished ahead of Paramount by about 0.5% on a $267 million gross for 12.5% of the big picture.

Sony was sixth at 8.4% and New Line nudged slightly ahead of MGM/UA, though both posted 3.6% shares.

The onslaught of blockbuster titles in June was responsible for significant marketplace expansion but that dissolved beginning with the latter days of July.

Entering the fall, the 1995 B.O. cume is once again even with a year ago. The bad news, as noted by one exhibitor, is not so much that summer performance was status quo. Rather it’s that the upcoming movie lineup has few obvious potent titles and the liklihood of further seasonal erosion in attendance at least through November.

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