Buena Vista became the first distributor to generate more than $1 billion in a calendar year, helping to propel the box office to a record of more than $5.25 billion in 1994. The distrib also increased its B.O. by 22% from 1993 to clinch the market share crown with approximately 19.3% of the big picture. And Buena Vista’s top grosser, “The Lion King,” nosed ahead of Paramount’s “Forrest Gump” Dec. 30 to become the year’s top individual title with $298.9 million to the latter’s $298.1 million.
In addition to the top two grossers, eight 1994 releases did box office biz of better than $100 million, and an 11th film, Fox’s “Mrs. Doubtfire,” grossed more than $100 million in calendar 1994. It’s a record for the number of pictures achieving that level during a 12-month frame, besting 1990 when 10 releases, topped by “Ghost” at $206 million, reached that plateau.
The overall box office picture brightened approximately 4% from a year earlier, when the previous yearly record was established. An estimated 1.21 billion tickets were torn between January and December, vs. 1.18 billion in 1993, for a head count that improved about 3%.
However, despite outward growth, closer scrutiny reveals a more fractured picture in which some companies posted major gains, while others wound up in the economic doghouse. With a nod to the Chinese calendar, a senior studio exec dubbed 1994 “the year of the bomb.”
Virtually no one escaped the pitfall of financing a $40 million plus extravaganza that failed to ignite commercially. Buena Vista took a major loss with “I Love Trouble,” Fox was hung out to dry with “Baby’s Day Out,” Sony divisions contributed Castle Rock’s “North” from Columbia and “Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein” via TriStar, and Warner Bros. gained entry into the infamous circle with “Love Affair.” The one record not being trumpeted this year is the increase in titles with significant writedowns. At least 24 releases from the studios will be tagged with individual losses of $10 million or more.
Possibly taking a cue from Disney, there was an upswing in the number of films produced by studios with modest budgets, $10 million or less. But the B.O. results for niche appeal pix by majors will necessitate a lot of remedial work. Some cases in point are “P.C.U.” from Fox, Paramount’s “Lassie,” “I Like It Like That” from Columbia and the infamous “Cabin Boy” from Disney. Though that quartet may ultimately break even on paper, a senior production exec confessed that those titles had to be considered major failures when tallying up opportunity costs – the time invested by studios on a picture from development through release.
Also on the increase were the number of major studio releases given perfunctory dates – usually per-contract minimums – which will wind up with losses in the neighborhood of 100%. Warner Bros., considered the king of orchestrated burial, had such goodies as “Imaginary Crimes,” “Second Best,” “Police Academy 7: Mission to Moscow” and “Reckless Kelly.” Buena Vista could claim “It’s Pat” and “Holy Matrimony”; Paramount streaked through with “Pontiac Moon”; it was a foul ball for Fox’s “The Scout”; and Universal got nothing but static from “Radioland Murders.”
The flip side offered pictures with little or no major profit participants reaping huge financial rewards to defray loss leaders. Buena Vista had both “The Lion King” and “The Santa Clause,” Fox was in the fast lane with “Speed” and New Line was smokin’ with “The Mask.” Pictures grossing more than $100 million increased from eight to 11 for a B.O. boost of 35% on $1.68 billion. Pix posting more than $50 million went from 23 to 29 titles and posted a 29% hike to $2.8 billion.
The obvious strides for wide releases do not shake down to other sectors, as evidenced by the overall growth of 4%. Fewer films represent an increasing percentage of the entire picture. Variety tracked approximately 430 U.S. releases in 1994, and those 29 pix with $50 million-plus B.O. accounted for 53% of moviegoer dollars.
Abetted by New Line’s absorption into Turner and Miramax’s acquisition by Disney, indie and niche product is being squeezed into a tiny corner. Documentaries, long a commercial hard sell, accounted for 0.35% of the marketplace, led by the Martin Lawrence concert film “You So Crazy.” Thirteen docs were tracked, including “The Endless Summer II” and the award-winning “Hoop Dreams.” Those two films and the Lawrence pic accounted for 77% of nonfiction grosses.
The picture for foreign-language product wasn’t much better. The 52 titles counted in 1994 (including 17 playing in Quebec only) totaled to $39.36 million or 0.75%. Only two films – Goldwyn’s “Eat Drink Man Woman” and Sony Classics’ Oscar-winning “Belle Epoque” – had a box office in excess of $5 million, which helped boost the average return on non-English pix to $750,000. New York, Montreal and Los Angeles constitute 50% of the audience.
English-language films originating outside the U.S. also had a setback despite healthy returns for Gramercy’s “Four Weddings and a Funeral” and “The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.” “Weddings,” grossing $52.7 million, was the year’s 23rd biggest pic. That and “Priscilla” took 37% of a total of $169.8 million grossed by 43 releases for 3.2% of the marketplace.
Only 20 sequels were released last year, as opposed to more recent trends in which slates and box office for sequels have ranged from 25%-30%. The 1994 retreads represented 10.5% of the total box office.
Animation, considered a major potential growth area because of Disney’s continued success, saw 11 entries in 1994. “The Lion King’s” $298.9 million B.O. for the calendar year was augmented by just $40 million from the rest of the non-live-action fare for a market share of 6.4%.
Individual studio market shares for the fourth consecutive year saw a battle for the top spot between Buena Vista and Warner Bros. But BV last held the crown in 1990, when Warner Bros. finished fifth. The Disney company’s percentage of the pie is the highest for the past five years, slightly ahead of WB’s 19.1% portion of 1992.
Warner Bros., which led for most of the first half of 1994, finished with 16.1%. The studio lost considerable momentum post-Memorial Day following the lackluster performance of “Wyatt Earp” and other films. For the last third of the year, Buena Vista maintained a commanding lead of $100 million to $150 million.
The comeback kid was third-place Paramount, which saw its B.O. increase by nearly 60%, spearheaded by “Gump” and “Clear and Present Danger.”
The studio was way ahead of the pack with an average return per wide release of $54 million. A surprising second, considering some conspicuous non-performers, was Warner Bros. with $38.3 million.
Closely bunched with WB were Universal, Fox and Buena Vista, with respective averages of $36.9 million, $36.8 million and $34.9 million. Warner Bros. and Buena Vista had a significantly higher volume of product than the other three companies.
Posting its best year ever, New Line was seventh in the overall standings and, with an assist from Jim Carrey, virtually doubled last year’s company showing. It also had an impressive average return of $26.2 million, a shade ahead of MGM/UA, which came in with $25.9 million and made significant strides after several years of almost crippling management transitions.
Still suffering from quakes at the top were Sony entities Columbia and TriStar, which formally merged distribution, marketing and publicity functions in the last quarter. TriStar releases generated an average return per pic of $22.8 million, while Columbia titles were in the rear with $17.8 million per pic.
The two companies were also the only ones whose average returns were less than their average production costs (prints and advertising excluded). Columbia’s average pricetag was estimated at $26.7 million, while TriStar had an average production budget of $23.4 million.
Good cash flow
Not surprisingly, New Line productions were most economical at $11.6 million, while Buena Vista was lowest among established studios, ringing in at $22 million. Warner Bros. represented the other end of the spectrum, with its pix’ average budget at $31.2 million.
There’s the appearance of more cost control on production budgets. Clearly, the studios are making less expensive pictures in addition to some very high-end packages.
On an average profitability basis – average production cost to average domestic box office – New Line was a clear cut winner with a 126% cost-to-return ratio. Next best was Paramount, which improved its picture by 87% (see chart).
Other strong cost-to-return companies were Buena Vista with 59% and Universal, which was 41% to the good. The flip side was again the Sony labels, registering negative balances of 3% and 33%, respectively, for TriStar and Columbia.