Heat wave at summer box office

10 pix top $100 million

Based on Monday estimates, the summer of 1999 was the hottest ever. Box office for the 17-week span was a whisker less than $3.1 billion, approximately 19% higher than the record set one year ago.

Admissions also bettered 1998’s 533 million, increasing a whopping 14% to roughly 610 million entries. It was the first time since 1993 that filmgoing reflected a double-digit growth during the season.

A record 10 films grossed more than $100 million (one more than in 1997), with three additional titles on the cusp on that vaunted precipice.

In the closing weeks of the season, Buena Vista was rapidly closing the gap with Fox for the summer market share crown. However, with final numbers to be reported today, it’s impossible to say conclusively who won. Estimated B.O. gives Fox a slight edge of $522.7 to Disney’s $519.9.

“If we win, that’s great,” said Buena Vista distribution president Chuck Viane. “But the bottom line is that we had a great summer and provided a lot of good pictures for exhibitors. Some companies had better records than others, but overall we’ve just never seen business like this. I hope ‘Sixth Sense’ will be a kind of fall engine for moviegoing in the way ‘Phantom Menace’ was for the summer.”

Perhaps the frame’s most intriguing numbers came from the average B.O. return for national releases. Forty-five films — four fewer than in 1998 — were put into wide release and had an average 11% boost to $60.3 million domestic per title.

It was also a banner year for specialized product, such as Sony Classics’ “The Red Violin” and “Run Lola Run,” which expanded almost as strongly as mainstream fare with an 18% boost from 1998.

Fox’s “Star Wars: Episode 1 — The Phantom Menace” was the first major release following the official start of summer, launching on May 19 and grossing $421.3 million at the close of Labor Day weekend. New Line’s “Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me” was second with $205.1 million. Though two summer ’98 releases — BV’s “Armageddon” and DreamWorks’ “Saving Private Ryan” — eventually topped $200 million, neither reached that level during the summer frame.

On closer inspection it was an astonishingly consistent span, with only minor dips in June and August thanks to unexpectedly potent titles. The late season arrivals of “The Sixth Sense,” Paramount’s “Runaway Bride” and Artisan’s “The Blair Witch Project” went a long way to smooth over a wave of weaker product that has traditionally dominated the weeks leading up to the September holiday.

Light on megapix

The season sported just two mega- budgeted special effects releases with “Phantom Menace” and Warner Bros.’ “The Wild Wild West.” Though the latter grossed $111.8 million domestically, its B.O. fell significantly below commercial expectations in a span that was conspicuously devoid of high profile miscues. Other notable studio misses included “The 13th Warrior” from Disney, Universal’s “Mystery Men” and “Dudley Do-Right,” New Line’s “The Astronaut’s Wife” and Sony’s “Muppets from Space.”

While the population has demographically been getting younger, there was scant evidence of taking on the Disney brand by targeting children and families. Disney ruled the roost with “Tarzan” and “Inspector Gadget.” While “Star Wars” unquestionably had the broadest based appeal of any release, Sony’s “Muppets,” Warner Bros.’ animated “The Iron Giant” and Universal’s “Dudley Do-right” failed to make a dent with that crowd.

It was an uncharacteristically adult summer season, with stars appealing to mature audiences, such as Julia Roberts, John Travolta, Tom Cruise, Bruce Willis and Hugh Grant, making major contribution to the record season. There was also strong evidence of a twentysomething presence, with a return of low-brow comedies and horror yarns — the staples of the date movie scene that turned “Blair Witch,” Sony’s “Big Daddy” with Adam Sandler and Universal’s “American Pie” into major successes and gave hit status to DreamWorks’ “The Haunting,” Warner Bros.’ “Deep Blue Sea” and Paramount’s “South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut.”

As a result, another unusual element became a major component of summer — censorship. The media was all over the digital figures created to obscure the thrust of “Eyes Wide Shut,” the search for the true uncut “South Park” and “Summer of Sam” and untampered ad mats for “Big Daddy” and “Teaching Mrs. Tingle.” Though controversy rarely works as a promotional tool, the films put under the microscope neither appeared hurt nor greatly assisted by the scrutiny.

Exhibs hopeful

In exhibition circles, theater operators maintained a posture of cautious optimism leading into August. The final burst of summer filmgoing activity would appear to have pushed the frame into the plus column. What’s been crippling exhibitors are high percentage terms and locked engagements. Several reps for major circuits were uncertain about whether the high profile movies were enough of a magnet for other titles on their marquees. The season needed an unexpected hit (with lower terms) and two — “Blair” and “Sixth Sense” –emerged in what could only be termed a Hollywood happy ending.

Both Fox and Buena Vista corralled roughly 17% of the marketplace. Fox’s season was very much dominated by “The Phantom Menace” with the rest of its slate including “Lake Placid” and “Brokedown Palace” providing no more than ripples in the seasonal pool. The Mouse House was considerably more aggressive with two major successes.

U most improved

Universal was the season’s most improved player in third spot with a 13.5% market share. It’s sked will wind up with three $100 million grossers, a record only equaled by Disney. Warner Bros. and Paramount both were eyeing 10% to 11% slices but while Paramount had a couple of major hits, WB’s reliance on big budgets and stars translates into a season of disappoints in relation to production/marketing costs.

In descending market share order, Sony, New Line, Artisan, DreamWorks and MGM had one-hit summer’s — generally very big grossers. Artisan was particularly conspicuous playing both mainstream with “Blair Witch” and “Black Mask” and delivering one of the best specialized summer titles, the musical docu “Buena Vista Social Club.”

“The Dinner Game,” from Lions Gate and USA Films, joined “Run Lola Run” and “The Red Violin” as the top niche successes. Though no large format film could top last summer’s run of MacGillivray Freeman’s “Everest,” the arena had a half dozen potent grossers including “T-Rex,” “Extreme,” “Mysteries of Egypt” and “Encounter in the Third Dimension.” Eros’ Hindi-language “Taal” (“Rhy-thm”) became one of the biggest grossers ($1.5 million) in its ethnic niche and Lions Gate’s French-lingo “Elvis Gratton II” was a top grosser in Quebec.