Buena Vista, Par split market

Last month squashed all prior July box office records, with a $917.3 million tally — 13% better than the former championship season of 1998. The frame also squeaked by 1994′s ticket-sales heights by 1% with an estimated 182.7 million admissions.

The moviegoing landscape took a complete about-turn from 1998, when the marketplace was dominated by a couple of distribs and a few blockbuster titles. July ’99 saw five companies share the wealth, separated by less than 1%, with each posting at least one $100-million-plus grosser. Buena Vista and Paramount were in a dead heat with a 14.4% market share, and Universal trailed by less than $1 million.

However, the top performer was Warner Bros.’ “Wild Wild West,” which grossed $102 million during the 31-day span.

The summer season is speeding well ahead of 1998 by 23% and there’s every indication this year will set both box office and attendance records. The past weekend, with close to $160 million overall, was among the top five all-time weekends. However, even though roughly half of Canada had a holiday Monday, the buoyant box office was almost entirely based on the commercial zing of Paramount’s “Runaway Bride” and the youth appeal of “The Blair Witch Project” from Artisan.

“Blair Witch” has quickly established itself as a true summer sleeper with the potential for a $100 million-plus B.O. Like last year’s “There’s Something About Mary,” the pic’s distrib knew it had a film with popular appeal. However, the contrast between expectation and performance is about as radical as any film in history.

In addition to such large-format stalwarts as “T-Rex” and “Mysteries of Egypt,” July saw steady, upbeat returns for such specialized titles as “Run Lola Run,” “The Red Violin” and “Buena Vista Social Club.”

Following “Wild Wild West,” the frame’s top performers, in descending order, were: Sony’s “Big Daddy,” Universal’s “American Pie,” Buena Vista’s “Tarzan,” DreamWorks’ “The Haunting,” Warner Bros.’ “Eyes Wide Shut,” Fox’s “Star Wars: Episode 1 — The Phantom Menace,” Paramount’s “South Park,” Buena Vista’s “Inspector Gadget” and Paramount’s “The General’s Daughter.”

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