Summer burns up B.O. records

'Mary,' 'Truman' surprise studios

Summer 1998 finished with a dot more than $2.6 billion to set a new seasonal record, smashing last year’s heights by 16%. While any box office gain is greeted enthusiastically within the industry, this frame is the first since 1993 to display demonstrable growth despite a number of caveats.

  • The number of wide releases were at an all-time high of 49, up 7% from 1997.

  • Average admission prices at cinemas rose by approximately 5%.

  • Variety’s tracking of films in release has expanded to include special-format IMAX titles, which account for roughly 1.2% of the marketplace.

  • The span between the Memorial Day and Labor Day weekends added an additional week for the play period.

Still, admissions rose to an estimated 532.1 million between May 15 and Sept. 7 — the highest attendance for the period and the first double-digit growth since 1993.

Even factoring out such elements as the additional seven days and the IMAX titles, there was a 10% box office growth and a boost in the average return of wide releases of roughly $4 million per title. It also surpasses the 1994 admissions record by 3%.

Shrinking cost/revenue gap

While production and marketing costs continue to grow at double-digit rates, the summer 1998 record indicates that Hollywood majors have taken steps to close the gap between costs and revenue. And it occurred during a season in which no title attained the vaunted blockbuster status of a $200 million-plus gross.

The season generated eight $100 million-plus entries compared to a record nine last year. “Deep Impact,” which opened in early May, grossed $90 million of its $140 million B.O. during the summer season. The most noticeable miscues included TriStar’s “Godzilla” and Warner Bros.’ “The Avengers.” But neither title was quite the disappointment of last year’s “Speed 2: Cruise Control” or “Batman and Robin.”

Additionally, a greater number of pictures performed markedly ahead of expectations, beginning with Paramount’s “The Truman Show” and extending to DreamWorks’ “Saving Private Ryan” and Fox releases “Dr. Dolittle” and “There’s Something About Mary,” the season’s undisputed surprise.

With the exception of the $25 million-budgeted “Mary,” the other members of this quartet fell into the dreaded $60 million to $80 million range, which has been considered the most difficult to return costs in industry circles. In fact, only “Godzilla,” Touchstone’s “Armageddon” and Warner Bros.’ “Lethal Weapon 4” of the summer entries ventured into $100 million plus production territory.

Buena Vista on top

Following dire results in the first quarter of the year, Buena Vista rallied to take the season’s market share and will finish summer with $542.7 million for 20.8% of the marketplace. Fox also had an unprecedented summer with B.O. of about $527.7 million and a 20.3% piece of the big picture.

“Certainly we had a quality lineup and it was great that the pictures played to the public,” says Fox Motion Picture Group chairman Tom Sherak. “We had to work hard because only ‘The X-Files’ had a built-in high profile and pictures like ‘There’s Something About Mary’ and ‘Ever After’ worked to a degree that was beyond our most optimistic expectations.”

It was definitely a have and have-not summer with both Buena Vista and Fox ringing up good results from six of their seven summer entries. Paramount, which ranked fourth overall, had a lighter slate but again most of their offerings, including “Truman” and “Deep Impact,” ranged from excellent to passable (“Snake Eyes”).

The flip side was exemplified by Universal, which had dismal outings for both “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” and “BASEketball.” Its fortunes never rose better than the recouper “Out of Sight.” Both Miramax and New Line spend the majority of the season on the sidelines but scored with genre fare in the second half respectively with “Halloween: H20” and “Blade.” DreamWorks’ exceptional response to “Private Ryan” washed away the disappointment of “Small Soldiers.” MGM was a bust with “Dirty Money” and might eke by from ancillaries on “Disturbing Behavior.”

The final balance for both Warner Bros. and Sony is less obvious. Warners will come out fine on “Lethal Weapon 4” and had solid returns from both “A Perfect Murder” and “The Negotiator.” But in addition to “The Avengers,” the company dropped the ball with “Wrongfully Accused” and “Why Do Fools Fall in Love.” Sony’s disappointment with “Godzilla” couldn’t be erased by the success of “The Mask of Zorro,” which was still far from a blockbuster. Its teen entry, “Can’t Hardly Wait,” failed to take off, and “Madeline” and “Dance With Me” were underachievers despite a seemingly strong niche appeal.

Exhibition fortunes will ultimately be determined by how shrewdly they booked pics with surprise stamina and lower rental terms, especially “Mary,” “Ryan” and a handful of others, including “The Horse Whisperer,” “Hope Floats” and “The Negotiator.”

Finding their niche

The specialized sector also had a potent season, despite the quantity of both the direct competition and the many mainstream pictures that were targeted for essentially the same upscale audience. The top-grossing niche player was MacGillivray Freeman’s IMAX production “Everest,” which grossed more than $28 million of its $40 million box office during summer.

More traditional fare also rang up hefty grosses of between $5 million and $10 million, including Sony Classics’ wry thrillers “The Spanish Prisoner” and “The Opposite of Sex” and the Native American-themed “Smoke Signals” from Miramax.

A handful of others have opened well and are primed to continue potent runs into the fall. This group comprises Artisan’s “Pi,” Fox Searchlight’s “The Slums of Beverly Hills,” Trimark’s “Billy’s Hollywood Screen Kiss,” Sony Classics’ “The Governess,” Lions Gate’s “Buffalo 66” and Stratosphere’s maiden Russian import, “The Thief.”

Through Labor Day weekend, the year’s box office grew to $4.8 billion, approximately 9% ahead of the former record pace set in 1997. The long, hot summer should propel the year to new heights in the environs of $6.8 billion.

Buena Vista’s “Armageddon” was the top grosser of the season, with $192 million, followed in descending order by DreamWorks’ “Saving Private Ryan,” Fox’s “Dr. Dolittle,” Sony’s “Godzilla,” Fox’s “There’s Something About Mary,” Warner Bros.’ “Lethal Weapon 4,” Paramount’s “The Truman Show,” Buena Vista’s “Mulan,” Paramount’s “Deep Impact” and Sony’s “The Mask of Zorro.”

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