Ticket sales for year hit $9.63 billion

The record-breaking 2008 domestic box office proves Hollywood isn’t as dependent on by-the-book franchises as everyone feared.

It will also be remembered for prospering even as the economy collapsed.

Ticket sales for the year — Jan. 2, 2008, through Jan. 1, 2009 — clocked in at $9.63 billion, ahead of the $9.62 billion earned in 2007. Admissions were down roughly 4%, far less than declines in other sectors of the economy.

Warner Bros. led the pack, posting B.O. revs of $1.77 billion, the best ever for any studio. Paramount followed at 1.58 billion.

Heading into 2008, studios were worried they wouldn’t be able to replicate the success enjoyed in 2007, when franchises (“Pirates of the Caribbean,” “Shrek,” “Harry Potter,” “Spider-Man”) dominated the marquee.

The range and breadth of 2008 titles that ended up working — including the most successful crop of female pics in history — impressed even the most cynical studio execs.

No one imagined that Warner’s Batman sequel “The Dark Knight” would become the most successful superhero title of all time hands down, or that Paramount and Marvel Entertainment’s Robert Downey Jr. starrer “Iron Man” would turn into an instant franchise.

The Christmas sesh saw a number of films do well, even if the marquee seemed too crowded heading into the holiday.

All told, 24 titles grossed north of $100 million in 2008, nearly as many as in 2007.

Studio tallies

The six major studios have varied stories to tell in terms of market share, but all matched or bettered their 2007 box office results.

Each jumped the $1 billion mark in ticket sales. Combined, the majors released 148 pics vs. 160 in 2007.

Keep in mind: Market share is not a measure of profitability.

Warner Bros.‘ 2008 box office haul of $1.77 billion was fueled by Christopher Nolan’s “Dark Knight” — the No. 2 top grosser of all time after “Titanic” — and the unexpectedly strong showing of inherited New Line titles. Warner’s share of the market was an impressive 18.4%.

“This is the most phenomenal year that you could wish for,” said Warners prexy of distribution Dan Fellman, adding that WB has exceeded $1 billion in B.O. revs for eight years in a row.

“Dark Knight” smashed a number of records, including best opening day ($67.7 million) and opening weekend ($158.4 million).

Of Warner’s top five domestic releases, three were from New Line — “Sex and the City” ($152.6 million), “Four Christmases” ($115.4 million) and “Journey to the Center of the Earth” ($101.7 million).

Studio also had the costliest misfire of the year: “Speed Racer.”

Without New Line’s titles, Warners would have topped out at roughly $1.32 billion, behind the $1.42 billion earned at the box office in 2007.

Studios can calculate the year in a variety of ways. Some go strictly by the calendar year; others include the first weekend of January.

Paramount clearly had a great year, including the successful release of David Fincher’s “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.” Studio claimed a hefty 16.4% of the 2008 marketplace, with ticket sales totaling $1.58 billion, ahead of the $1.49 billion earned in 2007.

Of the year’s top 10 pics, Par laid claim to four — “Iron Man” ($318.3 million), “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” ($317 million) and two DreamWorks Animation pics, “Kung Fu Panda” ($215.4 million) and “Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa” ($176 million).

“Iron Man” and “Panda” are among the new film franchises born in 2008. Others include “Sex and the City,” “Twilight” and “Get Smart.”

The Paramount marriage with DreamWorks proper continued to flourish at the box office, even while the two parties worked out the terms of their divorce. August comedy “Tropic Thunder” cumed $110.5 million, while thriller “Eagle Eye” grossed north of $101.3 million.

Par’s biggest downer of the year: “The Love Guru.”

Sony and Universal came in slightly ahead of 2007 levels, with U breaking records for the second year in a row.

Sony’s B.O. revs were $1.26 billion, or 13.1% of the market, led by Will Smith tentpole “Hancock” ($221.1 million) and followed by Bond installment “Quantum of Solace” ($165.7 million), a co-production with MGM.

Studio’s biggest disappointment is likely “Seven Pounds,” the Christmas drama starring Smith that grossed $50 million through Jan. 1, well below Smith’s usual showing.

Modestly budgeted comedies brought Sony good returns throughout the year, including “Step Brothers” ($100.5 million), “Pineapple Express” ($87.3 million) and “The House Bunny” ($48.2 million), while the bigger budgeted “You Don’t Mess With the Zohan” continued Adam Sandler’s winning B.O. track record.

U’s B.O. revenues were $1.11 billion, slightly ahead of 2007. Internally, Universal goes by the calendar year, which puts the 2008 haul at $1.12 billion. Market share is 11.5%.

Studio says 2008 proved the studio’s ability under the leadership of chair Marc Shmuger and co-chair David Linde to consistently deliver quality commercial hits.

“To have two successive years of record-breaking success is an incredible achievement,” the two said in a press release.

Breakout international blockbuster “Mamma Mia!” was U’s top grosser domestically ($143.8 million), followed by franchise relaunch “The Incredible Hulk” ($134.5 million), “Wanted” ($134.3 million”) and returning franchise entry “The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor” ($102.3 million).

And like Sony, U enjoyed a successful run with modestly budgeted comedies, including “Baby Mama” and “Forgetting Sarah Marshall.”

Fox‘s B.O. revs reached $1.23 billion in 2008, putting it at No. 4 in terms of market share. Fox’s kitty includes Searchlight titles, whose take was north of $212 million. If those are deducted, Fox is No. 5 in market share.

Studio ended the year on a high note with breakout Christmas hit “Marley and Me,” another victory for Fox 2000, which made the pic with New Regency.

But Fox had an uncharacteristically tough summer. Sesh started off strong with “What Happens in Vegas” ($80.3 million), while M. Night Shyamalan’s “The Happening” grossed $64.5 million. Things went south from there, however, with Eddie Murphy family pic “Meet Dave” cuming just $11.8 million, while “X-Files: I Want to Believe” mustered only $21 million.

Studio’s top release of the year was “Horton Hears a Who” ($154.5 million), although “Marley” could surpass that by the end of its run.

Other strong performers included “Jumper” ($80.2 million) and “27 Dresses” ($76.8 million).

More recently, Baz Luhrmann’s “Australia” came in on the low end of the studio’s expectations domestically, grossing $45.5 million to date. Overseas, where “Australia” made its first major push over the Christmas holidays, pic has already doubled its domestic gross. Pic should finish well north of $125 million abroad.

Disney went from No. 3 in 2007 to No. 6 in 2008, posting $1.01 billion in ticket sales, or 10.5% of the market. Pixar/Disney title “Wall-E” was the top grosser ($223.7 million).

“Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian” ($141.6 million) was the No. 2 earner, but the film’s box office performance fell short of studio’s expectations. Recently, the Mouse House announced it is giving up the Walden Media franchise. (Fox is a likely candidate to partner on “Narnia.”)

Disney may have ended the year last in terms of market share, but it broke new ground in 2008 with 3-D concert pic “Hannah Montana/Miley Cyrus: Best of Both Worlds Concert Tour” and bigscreen adaptation “High School Musical 3: Senior Year,” both of which had enormous built-in fanbases.

Produced for roughly $7 million, “Hannah Montana” grossed $65.3 million during a three-week run. “High School Musical” grossed $90 million.

Disney ended the year on a high note with Sandler comedy “Bedtime Stories” and “Bolt.”

Among independent studios, Lionsgate led the pack, posting B.O. revs of $438.2 million, well ahead of the $368.1 million earned in 2007. Studio released 19 titles vs. 17 the year before.

Summit came in next thanks to “Twilight” ($176.8 million), which has contributed the lion’s share of Summit’s $225.6 million in ticket sales.

MGM’s total B.O. revs were $164.4 million in 2008, including the Christmas release of United Artists’ Tom Cruise starrer “Valkyrie.” MGM earned $125.9 million in 2007.

Overture saw B.O. revs of $103 million in 2008, led by “Righteous Kill” ($40 million) and “Traitor” ($23.5 million). Studio’s specialty releases included “The Visitor” and “Last Chance Harvey.”

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