Sony Pictures releases on Tuesday reached a $900 million cume for the year, and around Labor Day the studio will become only the second company to gross $1 billion domestically in a calendar year. It will reach that level faster than Buena Vista, which first hit that mark in 1995 and repeated last year. The first $1 billion crown occurred in early December ’95 and the Disney engine revved up a year later to hit that target during the first week of October.
The achievement is all the more remarkable considering that Sony (or Columbia prior to 1994) ranked sixth one year ago, and apart from a third-place finish in 1995 hasn’t placed in the top three in the past decade. The company, which got off to a fast start with “Jerry Maguire,” has led in market share since early 1997 and never relinquished the crown thanks to a string of B.O. performers that include “Absolute Power,” “Anaconda,” “The Fifth Element,” “My Best Friend’s Wedding,” “Men in Black” and the current “Air Force One.”
Currently leading the pack by $300 million, it’ll be all but impossible for any company to usurp its crown. That would make Sony the first company other than Buena Vista and Warner Bros. to wear the market share crown since Paramount’s win in 1987.
Ironically, amid the joy of a fabulous turnaround, Sony faces the prospect of a reversal of fortune in 1998. Typical of transitions in top studio management, the changeover from Mark Canton to John Calley has resulted in a slowdown to assess projects in development and fewer greenlights. Currently, its pipeline looks steady thorough the first quarter of next year and light-to-erratic from that point forward.
The rest of the this year’s picture has seen Buena Vista and Warner Bros. — the traditional marketplace leaders — experience significant box office downturns while releasing roughly the same number of films during the first seven months. MGM, which also has been jangled by major management changes, saw its market share tumble from 7.2% to 0.8%. Conversely, Universal climbed from 11% to 13.5% on a third fewer releases.
Unquestionably the most improved player this year, Sony has seen its B.O. rise more than 150% compared with production and marketing boosts of between 20% to 25% on a comparable number of releases. Sony switched to firm terms on its releases in the early part of the year. However, exhibitors were guaranteed that in the first year of the policy, average aggregate rentals would not exceed those paid in 1996.