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Mid-range pics power up

Big-budget fare falls below expectations

The much-maligned mid-budget movie proved to be this year’s overachiever at the box office in 2006.

Meanwhile, some mega-budgeted fare sank beneath the weight of their outrageous expectations.

Although top-tier tentpoles like Disney’s “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest” and Sony’s “The Da Vinci Code” clicked with auds, the real stars of the show were unsuspecting midrange breakouts like Fox’s “The Devil Wears Prada” and Universal’s “The Break-Up” as well as the lower-budgeted “Borat” from Fox and Paramount’s “Jackass: Number Two.”

Those pics helped buoy B.O., which was up 3% as of Dec. 26 to $8.76 billion. (Last year saw $8.5 billion, while 2004 remains the one to beat with $9.2 billion.)

Just a year ago, Hollywood studios labeled the mid-range picture over and turned their attentions to top-dollar pics with boffo B.O. potential.

Today, given the staggering costs of marketing and production, those movies seem less enchanting — even when they rake in up to $200 million.

Warner Bros.’ “Superman Returns” hit more than $200 million and ranks as the year’s fifth biggest pic domestically, enough to warrant an upcoming sequel. But the studio’s more cost-effective CG pic “Happy Feet” danced to $163 million and will likely breeze by the Man of Steel’s take next month. Over at Par, CG pic “Over the Hedge” clipped the latest entry in the studio’s “Mission: Impossible” franchise. Conventional wisdom had “MI: 3” as one of the year’s top event films; it earned $133.5 million.

Other high-budget, high-octane pics, from Uni’s “Miami Vice” to Warners’ “Poseidon,” simply sank.

Seriously somber

Although ParVantage’s global warming/warning docu “An Inconvenient Truth” melted viewers’ resistance with a $23.8 million domestic take, auds didn’t exactly flock to somber tales about real life. While Par’s “World Trade Center” earned a solid $70.2 million, Uni’s “United 93” grossed only $31.9 million. Other titles like Focus Features’ “Catch A Fire,” Warners’ “Blood Diamond” and Fox Searchlight’s “Last King of Scotland” were hard hit.

Instead, auds gravitated toward family-friendly CG pics like Warners’ “Happy Feet,” Disney’s “Cars,” Fox’s “Ice Age: The Meltdown” and Par’s “Over the Hedge,” all of which landed in the top 10 for the year. Also laughing all the way to the bank were screwball movies like Sony’s “Talladega Nights” and “Click” as well as the low-budget prank pics “Borat” and “Jackass: Number Two.”

However, none came close to the $209.2 million generated by 2005’s “Wedding Crashers” in 2005.

And while the animated bandwagon already shows signs of breaking down in a flooded marketplace, the top toons were high and dry: Last year, one animated pic, “Madagascar,” made the year’s top 10. This year, four of the top 10 pics were animated.

Follow the leader

From a distributor’s POV, studios were the story. Only one indie pic — Lionsgate gorefest “Saw III” — made the top 25 for 2006. Meanwhile, Sony celebrated a record-breaking year with $1.64 billion in North American turnstile receipts.

Much of the credit went to “The Da Vinci Code.” Racking up $756.6 million worldwide, it’s hard to remember how shaky it seemed to be after a Cannes preem that yielded critical yawns and guffaws.

Sony also hit paydirt with “Casino Royale,” which rejuvenated the James Bond franchise with its casting of Daniel Craig as 007. With a $146.3 million domestic take to date, it’s become the biggest Bond of all time.

All told, Sony took 18.6% of North American market share with 31 releases.

Thanks to “Pirates,” Disney ranked second in market share with 16.8%.

The Mouse House, which has restructured to focus on its branded films and less adult fare, rolled out just 25 pics. According to Rentrak, it’s earned nearly $1.5 billion to date.

Fox had the biggest output, with a total of 44 pics from all divisions. However, it ranked third among the majors in market share.

As with Sony, Fox’s topflight successes were a mix of tentpole and lower and mid-budgeted fare. Combined, the studio’s “Prada” and “Borat” accounted for nearly $250 million at the domestic B.O. Together, they grossed more than Fox’s biggest earner, “X-Men United,” which zapped $234.3 million to become that franchise’s biggest entry (and, in the process, beating out “Superman”).

Fox also got an education in the fallibility of tracking.”Prada” strutted well above expectations and sharply slashed the “Borat” rollout got when advanced numbers looked shaky — only to see the pic become a hit at almost $125 million.

Following Fox on the charts at No. 4 was Warners; next came Paramount and Universal.

With a seventh-place showing, Lionsgate trumped New Line. The Time Warner division came in at No. 8 with 13 pics and captured a 2.8% market share.

Regrouped under Harry Sloan & Co., a rejigged MGM came up as No. 11 as it rolled out a slate largely culled from outside indie production banners. However, after just one weekend in release, the Lion’s own “Rocky Balboa” — made with Sony and Revolution — became MGM’s biggest pic.

Indies only OK

Without a “March of the Penguins” or “Brokeback Mountain,” indies and specialty divisions didn’t see the standout year they celebrated in 2005. Top honors went to genre fare like “Saw III” ($80.2 million) or Dimension’s “Scary Movie 4” ($90.7 million), Other specialty successes included Fox Searchlight’s “Little Miss Sunshine” ($59.2 million) and Miramax’s current rollout “The Queen,” which has so far hit more than $27 million.