Mouse wore the top hat in flat 2003

January-April period blamed for ticket sales falloff

It’s official: 2003 was a yawn at the box office. At least that seems the collective response of American moviegoers, with admissions off almost 5%.

A handful of pics broke through the mass ennui. Disney/Pixar phenom “Finding Nemo” and the Mouse’s live-actioner based on its “Pirates of the Caribbean” ride each amassed more than $300 million domestically.

Those summer blockbusters powered Disney to No. 1 in distrib market share this year and for the summer. But they failed to save summer 2003 from going down as a season marked by the failure of a couple of high-profile sequels that cost upward of $200 million to make and market. Then a stampede of pricey star vehicles produced a holiday B.O. that was merely flat compared with a year ago.

But for all the ho-hum results during summer and the holidays, it appears the real blame for the falloff in ’03 ticket sales lies primarily with the January-April period. B.O. was off a whopping 11% through the period, marked by the failure of early ’03 releases such as Bruce Willis starrer “Tears of the Sun,” Civil War epic “Gods and Generals” and Kevin Spacey suspenser “The Life of David Gale.”

In the end, the terrible start to the B.O. year proved too much to overcome.

U.S. and Canadian grosses totaled $9.17 billion through Sunday, the end of the ’03 box office year, according to B.O. tracker Nielsen EDI. That’s down 1.1% from the $9.27 billion registered in 2002, when a quirk of the business-year calendar gave ’02 53 weekends instead of the normal 52.

Meanwhile, ticket prices have risen an estimated 4% since a year ago. Thus, admissions fell 4.9% from business-year ’02, EDI calculates.

EDI figures admissions totaled about 1.52 billion in ’03. That compares with a year-earlier modern record of 1.6 billion tickets sold.

The Exhibitor Relations tracking service, which uses calendar-year comparisons, computes ’03 B.O. fell 0.5% while admissions slipped 4.3%.

“Pictures opened well and marketing seemed to work, (but) I don’t think films had quite the word of mouth going in ’03 as in ’02,” Exhibitor Relations’ Paul Dergarabedian said.

Interestingly, though distribs will be licking their wounds over a spate of pricey pics that failed to perform this year, exhibs appear relatively unfazed by the flat B.O. year.

That’s perhaps understandable, as many movie chains have upped ticket and concession prices substantially since last year. Also, exhibs figure the record grosses and ticket sales of ’02 represented especially tough comparisons for the latest 12-month results.

“2002 was one of those 100-year-flood sort of years when everything worked,” mused Kurt Hall, co-CEO of No. 1 U.S. exhib Regal Entertainment. “So it’s something of a minor miracle that we were able even to (come close) to that this past year. It reflects how strong the underlying business is.”

Of course, those who feel ’03 was a Mickey Mouse year for moviegoing are literally correct: Disney finished No. 1 among all film distribs with a studio-record $1.52 billion, or 16.6% market share, according to EDI data.

The Mouse House built its winning year on $300 million-plus perfs by CGI toon “Nemo” and family actioner “Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl.”

But Disney’s domestic distribution prexy Chuck Viane also stressed “the breadth of the slate” in discussing the studio’s No. 1 finish.

“Those were both great movies, but if they had done $200 million each you still would have a $1.3 billion year,” Viane noted.

So credit goes, too, to such Mouse titles as “Bringing Down the House,” a broadly appealing laffer starring Steve Martin and Queen Latifah, and “Freaky Friday,” the surprisingly strong remake of Mouse’s 1977 family hit.

2003 was Disney’s eighth $1 billion-plus year of the past 10. Its previous biggest year came in 1998, when grosses totaled $1.24 billion.

Sony, the B.O. champ in ’02, had to settle for the silver medal this time around with $1.21 billion and 13.2% market share. But execs there also emphasized a wide array of hits — albeit more modest performers than the Mouse’s biggest titles.

“It was singles and doubles rather than home runs,” Sony marketing prexy Geoff Ammer observed. “We did have nine No. 1 movies, (but) there wasn’t one that was really hit out of the park.”

Solid perfs came from Revolution co-prod “Darkness Falls,” suspenser “Identity,” Robert Rodriguez’s El Mariachi sequel “Once Upon a Time in Mexico” and other titles.

“Diversity was our strength rather than any one or two pictures,” Ammer said.

Warner Bros. finished third with $1.16 billion and 12.7% market share. Distrib’s second-in-the-trilogy “The Matrix Reloaded” was the third highest-grossing ’03 title with $281.5 million registered. Lesser success with franchise-capper “The Matrix Revolutions” and a so-so reception for December’s Tom Cruise starrer “The Last Samurai” kept Warners from finishing higher.

“We’ve had a fabulous year,” Warners domestic distribution prexy Dan Fellman said. “Four out of the past five years, we’ve broken $1 billion at the box office. So there’s been great consistency.”

Universal, which released fewer movies than those grabbing the medal positions, finished fourth.

U rang up $1.08 billion in domestic B.O. for a second straight year, nabbing 11.8% market share. 2003 thus became the first year ever that four studios each surpassed $1 billion in domestic B.O.

U’s Jim Carrey starrer “Bruce Almighty” was the No. 5 film of the year at $243 million.

New Line — whose current “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” was the No. 3 grosser at $292 million — finished fifth on the year with $926 million and 10.1% market share. New Line also had the seventh highest grossing pic with “Elf” at $171 million.

Twentieth Century Fox finished sixth with $801 million and 8.7% market share. Fox had the sixth highest grosser with “X2: X-Men United” ($215 million).

Miramax, perennial top specialty distrib, this year posted $695 million in domestic B.O. for a No. 7 market share of 7.6%. Gotham-based distrib also had a company milestone to crow about, ringing up more than $1 billion in worldwide B.O. for the first time with a total $1.14 billion.

Finishing eighth through 10th in domestic B.O. were Paramount ($649 million, 7.1%), MGM ($364 million, 4%) and DreamWorks ($238 million, 2.6%).

Fox Searchlight — the No. 2 grosser among specialty distribs — finished 11th with $119 million, and Focus Features finished 12th with $104 million. Searchlight and Focus had market share of 1% apiece.

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