It was a summer of surprises: Few thought that what was mostly a lackluster B.O. season would end Monday in a record $2.22 billion, albeit only 2% better than the prior record frame of 1996.

The summer began with only one impressive bow, namely Universal’s “The Lost World: Jurassic Park,” which broke virtually every opening box office record. It was followed by a series of high-profile sequels that played considerably below commercial expectations. Then, with the July 4th holiday debut of Columbia’s “Men in Black,” the B.O. rallied to record heights and crept to a new peak on the Labor Day finale.

However, for the third consecutive year, admissions declined. An estimated 483.1 million tickets were sold between May 15 and Sept. 1, a decline that was a shade more than 1% less than in 1996. The record summer moviegoing season remains 1994, which saw approximately 500 million admissions.

Although it featured a record number of megabudget releases, a series of disappointing results for high-profile sequels in June had industry mavens predicting that the frame would have an overall box office decline. However, July experienced a sharp reversal that allowed summer returns to surpass last year in the closing days of the Labor Day holiday weekend.

Most of the major national chains are apt to experience small gains during the summer, but not the sort of expansion that had been anticipated. Already several circuits have gone on record stating that higher rental terms have eaten into profits being generated from concession sales. Still, a strong first quarter and an anticipated record fall frame could foster a final 1997 tally in the area of $6.1 billion, or 6% better than in any prior year.

Sony clear winner

Sony was the clear winner at the summer box office, registering the first-ever $500 million season. In addition to having the top summer domestic grosser in “Men in Black” ($234 million), the company saw both “Air Force One” and “My Best Friend’s Wedding” top $100 million. The company finished with approximately $580 million and a 25% market share.

Bridesmaid Buena Vista had three films — “Con Air,” “George of the Jungle,” “Hercules” — on the cusp of $100 million for a summer cume of $411 million. Its summer share was 17.5%.

Six pics top $100 mil

In total, six films grossed more than $100 million during the span, with four additional titles expected to reach that level by the end of their domestic theatrical runs. That compares with a prior record of eight last year. But this season’s pics were particularly costly.

“The fact is that a $100 million box office is no longer a guarantee of success,” according to one distrib. “Costs are just so high that the bar needs to be raised to accurately reflect a profitable film.”

Such titles as WB’s “Batman & Robin” and “Hercules” had disappointing theatrical returns for those franchises and attained success largely on ancillary revenues and from product tie-ins. Fox’s “Speed 2: Cruise Control” was less fortunate, grossing $50 million in North America unaided by significant merchandising.

Traditionally, summers with release skeds that rely heavily on sequels have experienced B.O. downturns, and that was the case this season up to the Independence Day midpoint. But “Air Force One,” “Men in Black,” “Spawn,” “G.I. Jane” and “Money Talks” turned the picture around in July and August.

Weak product

Last year, the second half was dulled by a combination of weak product and the Atlanta Olympics. Similarly, the decision by rival distribs to avoid Universal’s “The Lost World” during the Memorial Day holiday in May meant there was little momentum at the head of summer.

The majors clearly dominated summer, with Metromedia/MGM’s “Ulee’s Gold” emerging as the sole crossover specialized success in the first half of the season. The latter part picked up with strong initial response to Miramax’s “Shall We Dance?” and “Mrs. Brown,” Fox Searchlight’s “The Full Monty” and Sony Classics’ “In the Company of Men,” among others.

Expansion backfired

The unprecedented number of high-ticket event pics this summer represented an all-out commitment to expand the marketplace that backfired and translated into fewer tickets sold. One can certainly expect release strategies to change next year. While there’s been undeniable growth in both the spring and fall sessions, summer and holiday frames appear to have topped out domestically. And while there’s been significant growth in overseas markets, the rise in both production and advertising costs has been considerably more rapid. Summer alone saw average costs increase by approximately 17%, and the addition of a couple of wide releases added to an almost decade-long trend of shrinking profit margins.

Warner Bros. nabbed third spot with a 14% market share, followed by Universal at 11.5%, Paramount with 8.5%, New Line securing 5%, Fox at 4.5% and Miramax securing 4% overall.

The top 10 individual performers for the span were “Men in Black,” “The Lost World,” “Air Force One,” “My Best Friend’s Wedding,” Paramount’s “Face/Off,” “Batman & Robin,” “Con Air,” Warner Bros.’ “Contact,” “George of the Jungle” and “Hercules.”

Final weekend figures will be available today. In the past, Variety’s Tuesday estimates have been accurate within .2%.

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