As any film executive can tell you, 1999 was a schizophrenic year.
On the one hand, the annual domestic B.O. ended the year at $7.46 billion; up 8.5% over the record total in 1998. The industry measured the box office year from Jan. 4, 1999, to Jan. 2, 2000.
Nine pics crossed the $150 million frontier, led by Fox’s “Star Wars: Episode 1 — The Phantom Menace,” which grabbed $430 million in domestic cume and became the highest grosser of the year, although fears that it would prevent any other summer pic from reaching blockbuster status failed to materialize.
Disney dominated the B.O. again, capturing about 17% of the market on the strength of “Sense,” “Tarzan,” “Toy Story 2” and “Inspector Gadget,” for a domestic cume of more than $1.2 billion.
WB ended 1999 with $1.06 billion and a 14.2% market share — its first-ever $1 billion domestic B.O. year, fueled by such top grossers as “The Matrix,” animated surprise phenom “Pokemon” and “Analyze This,” with football-gladiator pic “Any Given Sunday” creating strong year-end buzz.
At the same time, a less-popular, quieter truth began to emerge: The cost of this prosperity has been layoffs across the board in the movie industry, from high-paid execs to the lowliest creative infantry.
The Internet revolutionized the term “word of mouth” in 1999 by making Artisan’s $1.1 million pickup investment in “The Blair Witch Project” pay off to the tune of $140.5 million. But the cyberbiz also triggered a brain drain of Hollywood’s best and brightest, leaving production outfits a bit leaner for 2000.
Overseas, Hollywood fare racked up major coin, totaling more than $1 billion for Universal, Warners and Buena Vista each, with “The Mummy,” “Phantom Menace” and “Notting Hill” among the champions. A distrib tug-of-war ended as well when UIP and Universal won the right to roll out U pix abroad, while MGM quit UIP and joined forces with Fox Intl.
It was also the year when co-financing went from being a four-letter-word to a household word. Holdouts such as Warner Bros. finally gave up some of their traditional upside and went all the way on split-rights pictures — boarding a bandwagon that the rest of Hollywood had been forced to ride.
The new year holds more of the same, as studios try to keep the bottom line in control with more big co-financing arrangements on big-budget pics.
The year looks to be a big one for toon town. Fox and DreamWorks will try for a slice of the feature animation pie with soph offerings. Fox set “Titan A.E.,” featuring the voices of Matt Damon and Drew Barrymore, for June 16, while DreamWorks flies with Aardman Animation’s (“Wallace and Gromit”) stop-motion “Chicken Run” on June 23. The studio will also take “The Road to El Dorado,” with Kevin Kline and Kenneth Branagh, on March 31. Par returns to the field with Nickelodeon’s “Rugrats in Paris.”
Market giant Disney has four animated offerings on its sked: “Fantasia 2000,” “The Tigger Movie,” “Recess” and the live action/animated “Dinosaur,” which kicks off the summer with a May 19 playdate.
And don’t forget the second “Pokemon” pic from Warner Bros. in July.
Highlights and lowlights of the past year and upcoming challenges include:
Looking back on 1999, WALT DISNEY topper Joe Roth said: “I thought this last year was fantastic. Our animation business was just great with ‘Tarzan’ and ‘Toy Story 2,’ and within the live-action division, ‘The Sixth Sense,’ ‘The Straight Story’ and ‘The Insider’ are terrific movies.”
And, to the Mouse House’s surprise and delight, the company’s pics not only won at the box office, but they are also cleaning up in awards arenas, recently garnering an industry high 15 Golden Globe nominations.
While Disney as a whole was caught in a fiscal undertow, the film studio remains one of Disney’s most profitable businesses.
For the fifth time in the past six years, the studio is on course to lead the industry in box office market share.
Sleeper “The Sixth Sense” is on track to make $500 million worldwide. The studio has already committed to pay writer-director M. Night Shyamalan $10 million for a follow-up to “Sense,” while it is negotiating a first-look deal with him.
Overall philosophy within the Disney studio, though, has mirrored the other studios: slash production deals (from 80 to 35) — part of Disney’s ’99 cost-savings initiative which shaved some $400 million companywide — while finding ways to lay off risk through co-financing pacts .
While Buena Vista Motion Pictures Group co-prexies Nina Jacobson and Todd Garner have reupped for five years, rumors persist that studio topper Roth will ankle the Mouse House in the new year. Roth has declined to discuss those rumors.
WARNER BROS., which went through two lean years taking it on the chin at the B.O., anticipates a return to the “Batman” days of yore, when it held pole position with ease.
The biggest misfire of the year for WB was ‘Wild Wild West,” which looked like a sure thing on paper — the reteaming of helmer Barry Sonnenfeld with thesp Will Smith — but only took in $113 million, far below the reported $150 million-plus budget.
It was also the end of an era at the studio, as Bob Daly and Terry Semel ankled after 20 years at the helm, giving the reins over to 18-year WB vet Barry Meyer and ex-Castle Rock topper Alan Horn.
Despite a recent exec exodus that saw more than half of WB’s creative group leave for other endeavors in 1999, Horn wanted to drive a stake through persistent rumors of more Building 3 upheaval and key personnel changes.
“I’ve only been here since Aug. 1, but my feeling is that as I have gotten to know (WB prexy) Lorenzo di Bonaventura and his staff, I am wildly impressed,” Horn said emphatically. “I am not contemplating making any changes of any kind. I’m simply going to work with them and make the best movies possible.”
Without a muscular franchise to drive the 2000 slate, Horn nevertheless pointed to the “Pokemon” sequel, “Space Cowboys,” “Red Planet” and “The Perfect Storm” as solid tentpoles for this year, with the back-to-back “Matrix” sequels returning in 2001.
Coming off a dismal 1998, UNIVERSAL PICTURES started the year with Robin Williams starrer “Patch Adams,” a ’98 year-end release that took in $135 million. B.O. improved during the year, as U rolled out “The Mummy,” “Notting Hill” and “American Pie,” which all did well north of $100 million. Misfires included the expensive Ron Howard-helmed “EDtv,” the superhero spoof with the hip cast “Mystery Men,” and the Kevin Costner baseball pic “For Love of the Game.”
Major staff changes rippled through a studio that had mustered an impressive $950 million B.O. cume for the year. Stacey Snider was elevated to top slot as chairman, while former co-chair Brian Mulligan became chief financial officer at U parent company Seagram. Kevin Misher stayed steady as production prexy.
The king of co-prods, PARAMOUNT PICTURES, had its best year since “Titanic” sailed in 1997. Under the stewardship of Sherry Lansing and Rob Friedman, the studio generated just over $850 million last year.
“Consistency of management,” is how Par motion picture vice chairman Friedman explains it, coupled with “a varied slate, and some very mainstream movies.”
On the lot fewer expensive exclusive deals are expected: Gale Anne Hurd’s Pacific Western Prods. left the lot last year, and insiders say that Mace Neufeld and the Cort/Madden Co. may both be switching from exclusive to first-look deals at the start of the year.
As for strategy, this year looks like more of the same: A blend of big-budget actioners such as Tom Cruise starrer “Mission: Impossible 2” and major talent (Madonna and Rupert Everett) for the Lakeshore co-production of “Next Best Thing,” mixed with smaller pics like “Rugrats in Paris” and “Saturday Night Live” spawn “Ladies Man.”
In November, TWENTIETH-CENTURY FOX announced a major reorganization within its executive ranks — the largest since establishing its four divisions nearly five years ago.
Tom Rothman was elevated to president of 20th Century Fox Film Group, the newly created post charged with overseeing production operations for the studio’s two mainstream, live-action divisions, TCF (formerly 20th Century Fox production division) and Fox 2000. Rothman in turn upped Hutch Parker, to prexy of TCF and Elizabeth Gabler to prexy of Fox 2000, replacing Laura Ziskin, who resigned.
Such changes underscored a turbulent year for the studio at the box office. While Fox 2000’s Drew Barrymore starrer “Never Been Kissed” turned into a surprise hit and the Catherine Zeta-Jones/Sean Connery pic “Entrapment” held its own, such pics as “Fight Club,” “Pushing Tin,” “Ravenous,” “Lake Placid” and “Brokedown Palace” under-performed.
One of Fox’s biggest headaches in 1999 was “Anna and the King.” Audiences failed to get to know the $92 million Jodie Foster starrer. The epic, which was plagued by production problems, took in only $5.1 million on more than 2,000 screens on its opening weekend, and ended the year at just $25 million.
The studio’s only big hit was “Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace,” a film financed and produced by George Lucas, who paid Fox a distribution fee to handle its release around the world.
But Rothman looks to the coming year with optimism: “We have an audacious slate of films coming out (this) year, our strongest to date,” he said. “We have star vehicles for Leo, Carrey and Hanks,” i.e., “The Beach” with Leonardo DiCaprio, directed by Danny Boyle; Jim Carrey toplining the Farrelly brothers’ “Me, Myself and Irene”; and the reteaming of Tom Hanks and Robert Zemeckis in “Cast Away.” There’re also the long-in-development “X-Men,” based on the comic book series, directed by Bryan Singer, and Baz Luhrmann’s “Moulin Rouge,” starring Ewan McGregor, Nicole Kidman and John Leguizamo.
One lingering question: “Minority Report.” It remains unclear when Fox will get this big-budget sci-fi actioner — to be helmed by Steven Spielberg and to star Cruise — off the ground, though the studio says Spielberg and Cruise are committed to making the film.
Over in Culver City, COLUMBIA PICTURES had a lean year, suffering through rumors of exec shuffle and a hit-and-miss year at the B.O.
Talk of SPE chairman/CEO John Calley’s imminent departure seemed stubbornly to reverberate every few weeks, until he squashed them on the record.
Largely devoid of hits, Sony did enjoy success with “Big Daddy,” which grossed $163 million domestically, and had a solid hit with Martin Lawrence starrer “Blue Streak,” which took in $67 million at home.
It also got a nice Christmas present in the strong opening ($15.5 million) and subsequent B.O. ($80 million) of pricey family pic “Stuart Little.”
Despite the cheery ending of 1999, “It wasn’t our best year,” Pascal said of Sony’s dwindling marketshare, adding, “and we are focusing on developing big movies.”
Indeed, Sony’s topper has not greenlit a lot of popcorn fare, and despite pacts with top action directors John Woo and Wolfgang Petersen, neither has pictures on Sony’s 2000 slate.
Woo, in fact, has never made anything for the studio, and insiders say he may never: His Lion Rock Prods.’ three-year deal expires next year — and several studio sources say the helmer could be heading to Paramount. Pascal says she’s confident something can be worked out in 2000.
Pascal is developing “Spider-Man” as an potential action franchise, and sources said she is talking to Jan de Bont to helm. Pascal said she is planning to add several to the lot more producers who specialize in popcorn comedies and actioners, which can boost a studio’s year.
At the end of a modest year that produced surprises such as Sam Mendes’ “American Beauty” and “The Haunting,” one of the biggest questions lingering at DREAMWORKS is what Spielberg will do next.
With “Minority Report” in a holding pattern while the director decides when he will make that film, Warner Bros.’ “Harry Potter” franchise, or a script he’s writing himself, sources said things have slowed down in the adobe-style offices on the Universal lot until a decision is made.
Last year saw the exit of production head Bob Cooper, including several projects the outfit no longer wished to pursue. With Jeffrey Katzenberg as the pro tempore film prexy, the company hasn’t filled Cooper’s spot, and sources said it doesn’t seem likely to in the near future.
The company’s foray into animation — after hit “The Prince of Egypt” — continues in 2000 with “The Road to El Dorado.” And filmmakers with deals on the lot — Cameron Crowe, Zemeckis — have pics slated for 2000.
For niche pic juggernaut MIRAMAX, 1999’s somewhat of a letdown: the company’s profits continue to ride around $80 million, compared with 1998’s $125 million.
This year will bring a more cautious program of acquisitions. And the company is excited about “All the Pretty Horses,” a Sony co-production, helmer Anthony Minghella’s take on prize-winning novel “Cold Mountain” and “Bounce,” starring Miramax stalwarts Gwyneth Paltrow and Ben Affleck.
Dimension is also gearing up, with films in the $20 million to $30 million range.
Over at NEW LINE CINEMA, 1999 will go down in the books as the year of “Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me” ($300 million-plus worldwide gross) and also a year when the mini-major began to operate more like a true major.
Within the past year, New Line has established the sorts of talent relationships that have quickly gone out of style at the big studios: last year alone, it has granted production deals with Stephen Herek, David Fincher, Ben Stiller, Alex Proyas, producers Ron Yerxa and Albert Berger (“Election”), Ice Cube, Gregory Nava, John Lyons (“Austin Powers”) and Sara Risher.
“We pay attention to our roots as a company that began making indie films,” said New Line’s prexy/chief operating officer Michael Lynne. “We continue to be another turn on what the major studios are all about. We straddle both indie and studio worlds. We are a hybrid that has the capability to act independently.”
New Line has committed to make all three parts of “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy. While the films are not slated for release until 2001, 2002 and 2003, respectively, the move signals a desire to get into the studio act of event filmmaking — something that didn’t work with “Lost in Space” in ’98.
Change ruled MGM in 1999, as it has in so many years, but few could dispute that the Lion grew stronger as a result.
The key switches involved top execs. Alex Yemenidjian, No. 2 exec at sister casino company MGM Grand and a protege of majority MGM shareholder Kirk Kerkorian, became MGM’s new CEO, while Frank Mancuso and his son Frank Jr. left. Erstwhile U exec Chris McGurk joined MGM as chief operating officer.
UA was downsized and made into a unit specializing in lower-budget fare, while MGM struck co-financing pacts with Miramax and Hyde Park Prods.
Small B.O. strides also marked 1999 but the true payoff came with “The World Is Not Enough,” the 19th James Bond pic, which easily rolled past $100 million domestic; it’s expected to double that figure overseas.
McGurk said most projects left behind by the Mancuso regime have been released or purged.
(Claude Brodesser, Dade Hayes, Charles Lyons and Don Groves in Sydney contributed to this report.)
Daily Variety will publish a complete indie wrap next week.