1997 cashing out with Titanic-size B.O.

Sony leads $5.8 take

Last year’s record $5.76 billion domestic box office was bested Saturday, with the weekend momentum of “Scream 2” taking the year’s gross to $5.8 billion.

The shocker sequel — which brought in $39 million — provided a much-needed boost to the marketplace. However, the upcoming weekend performance of Paramount’s “Titanic” and MGM’s 007 installment “Tomorrow Never Dies” will determine whether 1997 can soar to $6.2 billion. A maxed-out year would translate into a sizable 7.5% B.O. growth and admissions of 1.3 billion.

Sony, which has led in market share virtually the entire year, has a commanding $400 million lead on its closest competition. With roughly the same number of releases as in 1996, Sony’s box office has ballooned by more than 100% in the past 12 months. The only other companies to experience upturns in 1997 are Universal, New Line and Miramax.

A modest 4% boost to 165 in the number of wide releases may also translate into a slightly higher average return per title. Last year’s average was $32 million. Daily Variety’s worldwide B.O. sampling also is projecting significant growth from international theatrical grosses.

The bright spot clearly appears to be a slight scaling back in the number of releases while maintaining a consistent audience base. But new majors such as DreamWorks and Polygram and expansion plans by October and Fox Searchlight could quickly fill the vacuum created by leaner studio slates.

Still, beefed-up revenue streams could well be eaten up by double-digit hikes in production and marketing costs.

Domestic box office growth has been abetted by a couple of key strategic and demographic factors of late. The majors’ decision to open high-profile films during the spring and fall continues to expand filmgoing, and as the population curve skews younger during the next three years, the largest sector of frequent movie enthusiasts will increase.

Domestic theatrical continues to be a slim profit-margin business with ancillaries taking up a greater propor-tion of the revenue stream. Since 1980 in fact, North American box office for major releases has dwindled from 45% to 23% of the total worldwide revenue from all income streams. Nonetheless, domestic theatrical remains the most significant indicator of a film’s grossing potential in all other areas.

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