‘Little’ win caps big year

Disney leads '99 box office to record $7.3 bil

Much like the seemingly unstoppable Dow Jones average, Hollywood enters a new century on a historic winning streak.

Overall box office hit $7.3 billion in 1999, ACNielsen EDI estimates — up nearly 9% over last year’s record, $6.76 billion.

Paced by perennial champ Disney, overall B.O. showed its eighth straight year-over-year gain. In the 1990s, grosses rose a staggering 65%. During 1999 admissions rose almost 5% from the previous year to hit their highest level in decades. About 1.48 billion tickets were punched in 1999.

The fact that New Year’s Day fell on Saturday, combined with the specter of the Y2K computer bug, mean most results won’t be made official until Monday. Disney and Universal plan to remain closed Monday, putting off the release of their final numbers until Tuesday.

But even though full-year projections include estimates for the final weekend of the year, the outcome still paints a powerful picture of the domestic B.O. performance.

After riding its holiday horse “Toy Story 2” down the home stretch, Disney clinched the market-share title for the fifth time in the past six years. Only Sony’s win in 1997 interrupted that streak.

The Mouse House garnered about 17% of the market, well ahead of No. 2 Warner Bros., which took roughly 14%.

Universal cornered 13% of the market, rebounding from ninth place last year to third in 1999. Its arsenal included “The Mummy,” “Notting Hill” and “American Pie.”

With “Titanic” finally in dry dock, Paramount slipped from second to fourth. Hits included “Runaway Bride,” “South Park,” “The General’s Daughter” and perhaps the year’s third-biggest B.O. surprise, “Double Jeopardy.”

24 centuries, one decade

The Mouse House paced the decade with 24 $100 million-plus grossers. It also pulled off an unprecedented feat in 1999 with two pics over $200 million: “The Sixth Sense” and “Toy Story 2.” Its other winners for the year included “Tarzan,” No. 6 for the year with $170.8 million, and “Inspector Gadget,” which tallied $97.4 million.

Credit the Mouse House with having enough product to overcome lackluster showings from “Instinct,” “The Insider” and “Bicentennial Man.”

“It’s nice to finish with such a strong kick,” said Disney distrib chief Chuck Viane. Momentum is key, he added. “When you’re playing trailers on the front of successful films, it definitely helps.”

Warners, similarly, survived missteps like “True Crime” and “The Iron Giant” to post its best year ever. High-grossers were spread out across the year, from “Analyze This” and “The Matrix” in March to the pricey and much-ballyhooed “Wild Wild West” in July to “Pokemon: The First Movie” in November. Hit status remains uncertain for holiday releases “The Green Mile” and “Any Given Sunday,” though both posted strong early frames.

“Pokemon,” redubbed from the hit Japanese version, cost Warners just $5 million to pick up. It made memorable waves in its Nov. 10 release slot, cashing in on kiddie auds out of school for Veteran’s Day. Pic rang up $10 million on its first day, the biggest Wednesday opening of any pic in November.

Fox’s ‘Phantom’ slate

On an individual pic basis, Fox enjoyed the biggest cume of the year with “Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace,” which ended 1999 with about $430 million. Prequel is No. 2 all-time behind “Titanic.”

But the rest of the studio’s 15 pics grossed less than that total combined, leaving Fox in fifth place. Letdowns included “Fight Club,” which took in $36.4 million, and the current “Anna and the King,” the Jodie Foster starrer that’s grossed $14 million in a key holiday release slot and is fading fast.

Other top titles included New Line’s “Austin Powers 2: The Spy Who Shagged Me,” which lasered $205.4 million, or roughly two-thirds of the Time Warner-owned mini-major’s total take.

“Big Daddy” turned out to be Sony’s lone smash, grossing $163.5 million. “Stuart Little” has scampered past $75 million after a Dec. 17 release.

Artisan bewitches

Of course, no summary of the year’s box office would be complete without mention of “The Blair Witch Project.” Pic’s $140.5 million gross not only dwarfed $1.1 million acquisition price; it truly put Artisan on the theatrical map. In 1998, by comparison, top Artisan releases were ancillary-minded fare such as “Ringmaster” and “Belly.”

Artisan and New Line stole Miramax’s mini-major mojo. Disney’s indie arm released a whopping 31 pics, but few stuck to the screening-room wall. Biggest hit was “She’s All That,” which brought in $63.4 million. Much-ballyhooed fare like “Happy, Texas,” “Guinevere” and “Music of the Heart” underperformed. Miramax will distribute “The Talented Mr. Ripley” overseas; Paramount has released the pic to initial success in the U.S.

Though plenty of limited-release fare turned a profit, it remains a marginal arena. From 1997-99, limited pics captured just 4% of the total B.O. pie.

That said, 1999 had its share of small-scale hits.

USA Films, the film arm that arose from the Polygram consolidation, collected $17.3 million on “Being John Malkovich,” which saw something between a limited and mid-range release. It also took in $11.6 million from Albert Brooks’ “The Muse.”

Lions Gate had its biggest year ever, with $53.5 million. Company thrived on the $8 million gross of “The Red Violin” and the $28.5 million summoned by the Kevin Smith-helmed “Dogma,” which took advantage of a screen count of about 1,200 in its first few weeks.

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