Can U catch Mouse?

Studios vie for 2000 B.O. title

Mirroring the late-year upsurge of the domestic B.O., Disney and Universal have turned a ho-hum 2000 market-share picture into a closely watched fight to the finish.

Entering the final two frames of 2000, the Mouse House is clinging to a $37 million lead over U, thanks in part to its ability to count grosses from 27 pics to U’s 20. Each has one remaining release opening Friday — Nicolas Cage starrer “The Family Man” for U, Coen brothers pic “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” for Disney.

The tight race is a surprise given that Universal ranked No. 5 when September began. The studio last finished No. 1 in 1989.

Publicly, of course, studios downplay talk of rankings. Execs insist that profitability is the best gauge of their effectiveness, and they have a point.

In this era of proliferating top 10 lists and power ratings, however, few can avoid staring at the B.O. scoreboard. Some studio execs, in fact, collect bonuses pegged to B.O. stats such as market share.

The scrutiny is especially intense in this year’s race, the closest since the 1992 contest in which Warner Bros. nipped Disney by $16 million.

“Our business is not about market share. We’re focusing on filmmaking and marketing and distributing,” said Nikki Rocco, U’s distrib chief. “But it’s an important measure. It’s the ultimate payoff.”

Tom Borys, prexy of B.O. tracker ACNielsen EDI, agreed. “Everyone wants to finish first. It’s always nice to have bragging rights.”

Manna for H’wood

B.O. boosters note that regardless of the race’s outcome, the combined revenue is manna for the industry. Both rivals already have cleared $1 billion for the year — the third straight time two studios have pulled off that feat. Total domestic receipts appear certain to surpass 1999 levels, an achievement that seemed far from a sure thing coming out of the soft summer.

The odds are fairly long for U to come out on top. “Family Man” would have to open bigger than the $20 million or so that most industryites expect and “The Grinch” would have to see a sharp uptick in holiday biz.

Disney hasn’t exactly streaked to the finish line, enduring sub-par perfs by “102 Dalmatians” and “The Emperor’s New Groove.” But carry-over from those pics should give it an excellent chance of keeping U at bay.

Through the first nine months of 2000, Disney faced far stiffer challenges to its throne from Warner Bros. and DreamWorks. On Labor Day weekend, Universal stood in fifth place with about $542 million. It was saddled with as many losers (“Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle,” “Flintstones in Viva Rock Vegas”) as winners (“Erin Brockovich,” “Nutty Professor II: The Klumps”).

Disney had likewise endured a spotty summer, with “Gone in Sixty Seconds” and “Dinosaur” strong but not spectacular and “Shanghai Noon” and “Fantasia 2000” underperforming.

4th-quarter boost

Since October, U has enjoyed a massive surge courtesy of “Meet the Parents” and “Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas.” Bucking the usual calendar profile, the studio will have collected nearly half its 2000 revenue in the fourth quarter on the way to a studio-record year.

The spurt came at an opportune time for U, which became a key part of a mid-year mega-merger involving Vivendi and Canal Plus. Disney’s fine B.O. showing also has provided some stability for the studio, whose numerous exec shuffles in 2000 included the departure of chairman Joe Roth.

Disney’s rep is one reason the market-share race is drawing interest. If the Mouse House can hold on and win, it’ll make seven top finishes since 1990 to go with four second-place efforts.

“They’re like the New York Yankees,” Borys observed. “They come out and consistently do great business every year.”

If U must play the Brooklyn Dodgers to Disney’s Yanks, it should be noted that the former has experience with pulling upsets.

In 1989, U’s last No. 1 year, it edged Warner Bros. by less than $1 million. WB grabbed headlines that year with tentpole blockbusters “Batman” and “Lethal Weapon 2,” while U failed to register a single $100 million grosser during the play period.

But depth carried the day, as U released solid performer after solid performer, among them “Parenthood,” “Field of Dreams” and “Back to the Future Part II.” The title, then as now, was significant due to U’s modest tally of 19 releases.

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