Sony pix power B.O. to record July returns

July box office edged to a new record for the month, $768.5 million, bettering the former high set in 1994 by 2%.

Sony, with the double-barrel success of “Men in Black” and “Air Force One,” led in market share with 41.2% and became the first company to record more than $300 million in a single month. “Black” was the frame’s top individual performer, banking $200.1 million.

“Wow,” said Sony distribution president Jeff Blake. “It’s not the sort of thing you plot out. Certainly we felt that we had a strong selection of movies. But it’s always great when the public turns out in an even bigger way than you anticipated. It also appears that we’ll set a new company record for summer box office.”

Buena Vista currently holds the record as best summer performer with $480 million in combined grosses in 1996. Sony movies have done an estimated $430 million through the weekend.

July business marked a sharp turnaround from lackluster early summer returns. Post-July 4th holiday frame moviegoing has been bolstered by pictures such as “Contact” and “George of the Jungle,” which debuted to stronger than expected response and have held better than the early season blockbusters.

While the box office hit an all-time high and improved by 6% from a year ago, admissions trailed 1994 by 5%. An estimated 171.5 million tickets were bought during the month.

Late July business faltered last year as a result of the combination of the Atlanta Olympics and the majors’ decision not to debut heavy hitters after Labor Day. Luckily much of the erosion was mollified by strong holdover business for June releases.

Megaplexing has been of tremendous benefit to wide releases and, combined with potent sales, has contributed to reining in specialized films to their regular niche. Even MGM’s “Ulee’s Gold” — the season’s top grosser in limited release at $6.3 million — has had only marginal success in mainstream venues.

July’s top individual performers following “Men in Black” (in descending order) were: Paramount’s “Face/Off,” Warner Bros.’ “Contact,” Buena Vista’s “Hercules” and “George of the Jungle,” Sony’s “Air Force One” and “My Best Friend’s Wedding,” Buena Vista’s “Nothing to Lose,” Warner Bros.’ “Batman & Robin” and Fox’s “Out to Sea.”

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