A Fox & Mouse game

Fox, BV break summer $500 mil mark

With less than a week to go before the end of the summer box office season, Buena Vista and 20th Century Fox have each broken, for the first time, the $500 million domestic B.O. mark for the period.

Since May 15, Buena Vista has rung up more than $534 million from its six summer releases; Fox’s seven seasonal issues have amounted to nearly $504 million.

Through the weekend, the summer overall is up about 11% from last year, and is just shy of $2.5 billion — another box office record.

This is the first year that two studios have surmounted the $500 million-plus landmark during the summer season. Last summer, Sony became the first to pass the mark, registering $568.5 million (from May 23 to Sept. 1), with $234 million coming from “Men in Black” alone.

Nearly all of Fox’s summer films outperformed even internal expectations and predictions and, as the summer wore on, the studio managed to close the box office gap on summer’s perennial market share leader, Disney. (The summer figures for the studios do not include releases from their specialized divisions or carryovers from films released before May 15).

Both studios managed to surpass the $500 million mark despite the absence of a $200 million-plus blockbuster from any studio for the entire season, and the presence of more pics in the marketplace than had ever been released during the summer.

Though Buena Vista and Fox are the summer’s box office winners, Paramount is the year’s clearcut market-share leader, ringing up nearly 20% of the box office and more than $900 million to date, thanks in large part to the $600 million-and-counting “Titanic.”

Warner Bros. stands in third place for the summer with $311 million through last weekend, powered by the $125 million gross from “Lethal Weapon 4.”

Sony’s seasonal tally to date is off about 50% from its full summer of 1997, thanks to the failure of “Godzilla” to become a mega-blockbuster and the fact that none of its other releases cracked $100 million.

In its first summer, DreamWorks stormed the multiplexes with the hit “Saving Private Ryan” and the break-even “Small Soldiers.”

Paramount is basking in the success of “The Truman Show,” which was joined by “Snake Eyes” and “Dead Man on Campus”; New Line was a latecomer to the summer, scoring with “Blade”; Universal and MGM/UA have had disappointing summers, releasing five films between them — none of which look to be moneymakers.

With the three-day Labor Day holiday still to come, Buena Vista is up 28% over last year, through the strength of “Armageddon” — whose $188.5 million gross will make it the summer’s top domestic earner — and “Mulan.” Fox, led by the comedic charms of “Dr. Dolittle” and “There’s Something About Mary,” is up an astounding 328% from the year before.

While Disney appears to be the summer box office gross winner, on a cost-to-return basis Fox looks to reap the most from its slate. The cumulative negative costs of Disney’s summer slate is estimated to be nearly $600 million. Fox on the other hand, produced its seven films for roughly $300 million.

Record overall B.O.

Buena Vista Pictures distribution president, Phil Barlow describes the period as “a classic summer,” with a breadth of films for every taste and age group.

“There were sleepers, there were surprises and there were a couple of disappointments. There wasn’t a $200 million film in the summer, but you had one extra $100 million film this year.”

The closest Disney had come to the $500 million summer plateau was the $477 million it rang up in 1996, aided by the $134 million gross from “The Rock” and nearly $100 million from “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.” The closest Fox came was the $358 million it banked in 1996, based mainly on the strength of “Independence Day” and its $281 million gross.

This summer, Buena Vista continued its successful strategy of anchoring its releases with the one-two combination of a big-budget actioner and an animated feature. In addition to Touchstone Pictures’ “Armageddon,” Buena Vista was helped to the milestone by its animated feature “Mulan,” which has earned $116 million to date.

Disney also added two adult-oriented films to its early summer slate and managed to ring up big grosses from the normally non-summer fare. The studio brought in nearly $72 million from the Harrison Ford/Anne Heche starrer “Six Days, Seven Nights” and took in nearly $75 million from Robert Redford’s drama “The Horse Whisperer.”

Buena Vista also has counted $56 million from “The Parent Trap.” Disney’s only misstep this summer is “Jane Austen’s Mafia,” which has grossed only $18.9 million to date.

Fox’s comedy jam

Fox’s $500 million-plus summer was spearheaded by two comedies, the family-driven “Dr. Dolittle,” starring Eddie Murphy, which accounted for $138 million; and the Farrelly Brothers’ twisted laugher “There’s Something About Mary,” which has brought home more than $116 million to date.

The $25 million, R-rated “Mary,” the summer’s biggest surprise hit, saw a 9% gain last weekend to $8.3 million, after nearly seven weeks in the marketplace. The gross was enough to propel “Mary” into second place for the first time since its July 17 opening. (Mary has never dropped more than 13% during its entire seven week run).

The film now has a chance to become the summer’s third-highest grosser, behind “Armageddon” and DreamWorks’ “Saving Private Ryan” — and if it supplants Fox’s own “Dr. Dolittle,” which is projected to top out just short of $145 million.

Also contributing to Fox’s record haul were “Bulworth” with nearly $27 million; “The X-Files,” $83 million; “Hope Floats,” $59 million; “Ever After,” nearly $49 million; and its latest release, “How Stella Got Her Groove Back,” with nearly $28 million.

The summer marks a dramatic change of fortune for Fox, which last year at this time was suffering through the abysmal performance of “Speed 2” and was preoccupied with cost overruns and turmoil during the production of “Titanic.”

While Warren Beatty’s political satire “Bulworth” will lose money, all of Fox’s summer releases since the May 29 bow of “Hope Floats” look to at least break even, and most seem likely to become clear-cut moneymakers.

“The bottom line is we had a big summer as far as grossing and a very big summer as far as profitability,” says Tom Sherak, 20th Domestic Motion Picture Group chairman.

Ever aware of the cyclical nature of the industry, the distribution vet cautions that “the same talented people who make and market the movies that work are the same talented people who make and market the movies that don’t work.”

(Leonard Klady contributed to this report.)

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