Resurgent Par shares the wealth

HIGH POINTS: What a difference a year makes. The year just past brought Paramount a welcome im-provement over its lackluster performance in 1995, with highlights including the Memorial Day megahit “Mission: Impossible” ($181 million); the September surprise “The First Wives Club” ($104 million); and Thanksgiving hit “Star Trek: First Contact” ($89 million and counting).

The studio also ended 1996 on an upbeat note, as MTV Films’ “Beavis and Butt-head Do America” set an all-time December opening record of $20.1 million, to the surprise of many. While ticket sales for the $12 million-budgeted animated feature dropped off quickly, “Beavis” and Nickelodeon’s less flashy “Harriet the Spy” offered prime examples of the kind of corporate synergy that Viacom chairman Sumner Redstone has sought since acquiring Paramount three years ago.

Overall, the 17 pictures Paramount released in 1996 grossed $690million during the year, an average of $40.6million per picture, up 31%from ’95’s average of $31 million.

The company finished the year with domestic box office receipts of $725.5million for all films (including carryover from films released the previous year), up 35.5% from 1995. That gave Par 12.6% of the U.S. market share, put-ting it in third place just ahead of 20th Century Fox.

Paramount execs, who say the company chooses to focus on profitability rather than market share, point to a num-ber of inexpensive, money-making films including “Beavis,” “Harriet” and “A Very Brady Sequel,” which each cost about $12 million to produce. The thrifty teen comedy “Black Sheep” grossed a solid $32.4 million.

In the case of more expensive pics, the studio continues to pursue its strategy of spreading risk through co-financing, split-rights deals and negative pickups. For instance, Par’s $56 million-grossing “Primal Fear” was a co-production with Rysher Entertainment. Meanwhile, co-financing helped lessen the pain of some of the studio’s less successful releases.

LOW POINTS: Last summer’s “The Phantom,” which cost about $40 million to make and grossed less than $18 million Stateside, was undoubtedly the studio’s biggest disappointment, and one for which Par had no partner to cushion the blow.

On the other hand, Rysher chipped in for half of the near-$50 million production budget of “John Carpenter’s Escape From L.A.,” which saw domestic receipts of just $25.5 million. Rysher was also an equity investor in B.O. dud “Dear God,” a relatively inexpensive romantic comedy, which topped out at $6.9 million.

Likewise, Douglas-Reuther Prods. put up part of the budget for the Michael Douglas-Val Kilmer starrer “The Ghost and the Darkness,” which also failed to hit its mark at $37.7 million.

COMINGS AND GOINGS: In September, 25-year Paramount veteran Barry London announced plans to ankle his post as vice chairman and head of distribution. His replacement, longtime Warner Bros. advertising and marketing president Robert Friedman, took over Monday.

The studio inked a number of new production deals over the past year, including three-year pacts with Mel Gibson’s Icon Prods., a deal split with WB, and Sean Daniel and Jim Jacks’ Alphaville Prods, which had long been based at Universal.

Last January, Par signed a first-look deal with Carolco topper Mario Kassar, a deal that has yet to bear fruit. More recently, the company got into business with former Carolco president Peter Hoffman. His new company with producer Neil Canton, 7 Arts, has taken a one-third equity stake in at least four upcoming Paramount projects.

OUTLOOK FOR ’97: Through Par’s pacts with Fox, Disney, Cloud Nine, Lakeshore, Rysher, 7 Arts, Dino DeLau-rentiis and Douglas-Reuther, all of the studio’s 1997 releases with budgets over $20 million reportedly involve some sort of co-financing arrangement.

The studio’s most expensive releases for this year include long-awaited “The Saint,” starring Val Kilmer; “The Flood,” produced by Mark Gordon and Gary Levinsohn’s Cloud Nine; and the John Woo-directed “Face Off,” from Douglas-Reuther.

Paramount also will handle domestic distribution on James Cameron’s megabudgeted disaster pic “Titanic.” The picture, co-produced with Fox, is reportedly approaching $130 million in production costs, and while Paramount’s investment is capped at $50 million, Fox will also receive the lion’s share of the worldwide gross.

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