Dividing the treasure

Some studios prospered in 2006, others fell short at the boxoffice.

A swaggering pirate, a hotshot roadster, a bitchy boss and a sexy new 007 brought moviegoers back to the theaters and gave last year's boxoffice a much-needed gain compared with the slumping 2005.

Along the way, Sony Pictures reached new heights, claiming 13 No. 1 releases and a domestic boxoffice record of $1.698 billion. Buena Vista Pictures claimed the top two films of the year with "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest" and Pixar Animation Studios' "Cars," while 20th Century Fox held steady, generating practically the exact same annual gross as 2005 thanks to a solid string of films including "X-Men: The Last Stand," "Ice Age: The Meltdown" and "The Devil Wears Prada."

Meanwhile, Warner Bros. Pictures, which arguably had one of the most anticipated slates of the year, had difficulty delivering and dropped from a first-place market share in 2005 to fourth place because of such misfires as "Poseidon," M. Night Shyamalan's "Lady in the Water" and a disappointing "Superman Returns," even though the superhero's long-awaited return did climb above the $200 million mark domestically.

Universal Pictures also struggled -- not only did it lose longtime executive Stacey Snider to DreamWorks, but it propelled only one film, the romantic comedy "The Break-Up," into the $100 million club. Paramount Pictures made some gains thanks to its acquisition of DreamWorks Pictures, which provided the studio's top-grossing movie, the animated film "Over the Hedge," via its distribution arrangement with DreamWorks Animation.

Sony made the most dramatic turnaround. After a dismal 2005 that saw only one $100 million-plus earner with the romantic comedy "Hitch," the studio closed ranks and got tough, installing a new marketing head in Valerie Van Galder and pushing its wide releases. The diligence paid off and the studio can now boast five $100 million-plus films, including the year-ender "The Pursuit of Happyness," which crossed the $100 million mark over New Year's weekend.

"We really had a great mix of pictures," said Jeff Blake, chairman of marketing and distribution at the Columbia TriStar Motion Picture Group. "We had the rare adult blockbuster with 'The Da Vinci Code,' the biggest Bond ever with 'Casino Royale,' two fantastic summer comedies in 'Click' and 'Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby,' two successful animated films, 'Open Season' and 'Monster House' and we're topping off the year with 'Pursuit of Happyness.' Between Adam Sandler, Will Ferrell, Will Smith, Tom Hanks and the exciting new Bond in Daniel Craig, we had a great mix of talent."

Blake's eclectic slate really is a reflection of the broader overall movie schedule at the North American boxoffice. There was a lot of variety in the mix that brought all kinds of moviegoers to theaters.

There were breakout films in all the major genres. Four animated movies filled out the top 10 highest-grossers of the year. While there was much discussion that the talking-animal genre was fatigued from the plethora of animated films, Warners' "Happy Feet" bucked the trend, opening in November to $41.5 million and eventually grossing $178.4 million. "Cars," Fox's "Ice Age: The Meltdown" and "Over the Hedge" completed the rest of the animated fare that found slots in the top 10. In the adult market, "Code," "Prada" and "Casino" lured in audiences, while "Talladega," "Borat" and "Click" rounded out the comedy list.

Eleven more wide releases hit the big screen last year compared with 2005. While the overall national boxoffice was up nearly 5% compared with 2005, the added titles suggest that there is a degree of overcrowding.

As the year-end fare hit the marketplace, the studios seemed to be cannibalizing their own films, trying to get their movies into release before the year closed. For example, Fox bowed the dragon fantasy film "Eragon" wide Dec. 15, only to go after the same fantasy-friendly audience the following Wednesday with "Night at the Museum." Sony did a similar thing with "Happyness" and the Nancy Meyers-directed comedy "The Holiday," two movies with appeal for women that opened within seven days of each other. "Holiday" might have been deemed a chick flick, but with "Happyness" attracting adult couples, half of that couple was drawn away from "Holiday" only a week after it opened to see Smith play a down-on-his luck salesman.

"There seem to be too many companies putting multiple entries into the marketplace," Buena Vista president of distribution Chuck Viane said. His company is bucking that trend, announcing in 2006 that it will pare back its slate to 10 wide releases a year. That change comes as the studio replaced longtime production chief Nina Jacobson with marketing guru Oren Aviv.

"We're going against that trend," Viane said. "We believe there are too many movies in the marketplace. We'll take care of our own house, and the industry will do whatever it does."

Disney received confirmation of its new strategy last year when its boxoffice list saw its top four releases "Dead Man's Chest," "Cars," "Eight Below" and "The Santa Clause 3: The Escape Clause" all carry the Disney moniker. Only two of those topped the $100 million mark, but with "Dead Man's Chest" reaping $423 domestically and "Cars" generating $244 million, it was enough to award the studio second place in annual market share.

Sequels also were a driving force at last year's boxoffice. With five of the top 10 films encores to previous successes, the built-in fan base and product recognition of sequels is too much of a lure for production executives to turn down. That trend will continue this year when Buena Vista releases its third iteration of "Pirates" -- "Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End" -- Paramount unveils DreamWorks Animation's "Shrek the Third," Sony releases "Spider-Man 3" and Warner Bros. Pictures bows "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix."

Buena Vista's Viane thinks this year is going to be the movie business' best yet. "Between 'Pirates,' 'Shrek,' 'Spider-Man 3' and 'Harry Potter,' there are so many films that audiences have already embraced. It's an unbelievable group. It should be great."

Sony's Blake also is enthusiastic about 2007 as he readies "Spider-Man 3" to hit the big screen in May. But he is equally upbeat abut 2008 because it will feature a similar lineup to 2006 with comedies from Sandler and Ferrell, an animated film, the sequel to "Da Vinci" -- "Angels and Demons" -- and the Smith superhero drama, "Tonight He Comes."

While diversity proved to be the name of the game in 2006, what seems to give executives the greatest confidence are future iterations of proven hits. While nothing is a guarantee -- Paramount's "Mission: Impossible III" earned a disappointing $133 million domestically this year -- the sequels of 2006 contributed close to $2 billion of the year's total domestic boxoffice, estimated at $9.46 billion.