B.O. hits $5.76 bil; 32 pix in global $100 mil club

They’re not called the majors for nothing. Of the official domestic B.O. total of $5.76 billion for the year, mainstream releases accounted for a sliver more than 96% of the grosses, up slightly from a year ago.

In addition to box office and admission records, last year recorded an all-time high of 12 $100 million domestic grossers. Disney’s “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” just missed the Dec. 31 cut by $80,000, according to a studio spokesman.

Global $100 million-plus pics diminished by two to 32. However, nine films bettered $200 million worldwide, an increase of one from 1995. Initial international returns indicate that while offshore moviegoing continues to expand, the rate of that growth is slowing. In a similar vein, videocassette sales and rental are expected to see a modest bump of between 3% and 5%, according to industry sources.

Official figures from the majors were in line with Daily Variety projections. While there were slight variations in final reporting, none was significant enough to alter company market share or position.

Despite the record numbers, “everyone is suffering the squeeze of revenue streams that can’t keep up with the escalating costs to make movies,” a senior studio exec said. “Basically, the industry has to apply some radical surgery to the way (it operates) because it won’t be bailed out by a new technology like DVD.”

The majors put 159 movies into wide release in calendar 1996, or one more new film every three weeks. The sked for the first half of 1997 appears as competitively ferocious.

The increasingly crowded domestic marketplace has resulted in fewer playing days on average for mainstream pictures. However, the biggest complaint from distribs in this area is that the glut necessitates that more money be put into advertising budgets. Fox exec VP Tom Sherak said the cost to overcome the “noise level” of other films competing for the same audience has resulted in double-digit inflation in promotion budgets for at least three years.

The top specialized pic of 1996 was Sony Classic/Norstar’s “Lone Star,” which finished the year with a gross of $12.9 million. The only other U.S. indie to top $10 million was the Orion/Alliance release “Big Night.”

The slight erosion in the specialized arena didn’t affect foreign-language movies, which maintained a 0.75% share of the domestic B.O. Miramax/Alliance’s “The Postman,” which debuted in June 1995, garnered $12.7 million in ’96, hinged to an aggressive Oscar campaign. The year’s foreign-language winner, the Dutch “Antonia’s Line,” was second with a gross of $4.2 million.

Also of note in the closing week of 1996 was the fact that major holiday releases from two companies – Sony’s “Jerry Maguire” and New Line’s “Michael” – wound up as their top performing titles of the year. Neither had strong B.O. performers the rest of the calendar year.

Heavenly buzz

“Michael’s” success has the industry buzzing. It’s the holiday’s single biggest upbeat surprise with a gross of $39.4 million after eight days in release. Despite mixed reviews and lackluster tracking, it led all other films during the Christmas-New Year frame. Title star John Travolta is receiving much of the credit, but co-producer Jim Jacks insisted that the upbeat fantasy theme was an important draw, and word-of-mouth has been heavenly.

“Maguire” dogged “Michael” in second place and Disney’s “101 Dalmatians” parked in third, receiving a healthy family boost during the period. Moviegoing tends to skew older and very young at year’s end, so rallies for WB’s “My Fellow Americans” and fallbacks for Paramount’s “Beavis and Butt-head” and Miramax’s “Scream” were not unexpected. While such films as Buena Vista’s “The Preacher’s Wife” and Fox’s “One Fine Day” haven’t performed to anticipated strength, the season’s unquestionable underachiever has been Paramount’s “The Evening Star,” which has limped to $7.4 million since Christmas Day.

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