Dividing the treasure
Some studios prospered in 2006, others fell short at the boxofficeA 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.
SONY: Cracking winning code
Sony Pictures enjoyed a record-breaking 13 bows at No. 1 in 2006, capping off a spectacular reversal from its dismal performance in 2005. With such bonanzas as "The Da Vinci Code," "Casino Royale" (a co-production with MGM) and "Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby," the Culver City studio easily bested the previous record of eight top-spot openers in a year for a distributor. With a diverse slate, Sony covered its demographic bases and also boasted some awards-season contenders with "The Pursuit of Happyness" and "Monster House." Although it will be tough to eclipse its 2006 showing, Sony has the makings of a monster year looming with one of the summer's most anticipated films, "Spider-Man 3." (Tatiana Siegel)
BUENA VISTA: Riding summer's wave
Buena Vista, the distribution arm of Walt Disney Studios, owned the summer with its top two releases, the rousing sequel "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest" and "Cars," from Pixar Animation Studios. In the fall, such movies as "The Prestige" "Deja Vu" and "Invincible" all performed solidly, and the studio even managed to open the violent "Apocalypto" at No. 1 despite the hot-button controversy surrounding the movie's director, Mel Gibson. The year also marked the ascendancy of Oren Aviv from his position of head of marketing to head of production, replacing the outgoing Nina Jacobson, as Disney focussed ever more intently on family-friendly films like "The Santa Clause 3: The Escape Clause" and a promise to trim its future release schedules to concentrate on its strengths. (Borys Kit)
20TH CENTURY FOX: Polishing its franchises
Covering the bases by appealing to everyone from fanboys to older females to family audiences, 20th Century Fox fielded a reliably strong lineup. The studio built on established franchises with the animated "Ice Age: The Meltdown," from its Blue Sky Studios, and the Marvel Comics adaptation "X-Men: The Last Stand." It enjoyed out-of-left-field hits with the femme-centric "The Devil Wears Prada" and the gonzo comedy "Borat," which introduced Sacha Baron Cohen to American audiences. It had a four-quadrant holiday hit with the fantasy-comedy "Night at the Museum." With the youth-skewing Fox Atomic, it launched a new label, though its first outing, "Turistas," fell flat. And, for 2007, it will usher the long-running TV hit "The Simpsons" to the big screen in the form of "The Simpsons Movie." (Gregg Kilday)
WARNER BROS. PICTURES: Getting back on its feet
After a waterlogged summer during which "Poseidon" and "Lady in the Water" sank and "Superman Returns" appeared to struggle to gain altitude, Warner Bros. Pictures' tentpole strategy rebounded in the latter part of the year with the animated feature "Happy Feet." As a result, the studio crossed the $1 billion mark in domestic revenue for the sixth year in a row. The critical and boxoffice hit "The Departed" has been collecting awards nominations, though such other year-end offerings as the fantasy-fueled "The Fountain" and the socially conscious "Blood Diamond" haven't fared as well. As Oscar season develops, in addition to "Departed," expectations are high for Clint Eastwood's "Letters From Iwo Jima," which the studio moved from a January release to a late-December limited release. (Borys Kit)
PARAMOUNT PICTURES: Introducing new team
For the second year in a row, Paramount Pictures offered up major backlot dramas. First, the Melrose Avenue studio acquired DreamWorks, beating out crosstown rival Universal Pictures. Paramount also initiated the year's most talked-about breakup, ending its 14-year relationship with Tom Cruise and Paula Wagner's C/W Prods. shingle after "Mission: Impossible III" was judged a disappointment, its $133.4 million domestic gross notwithstanding. Amid the changes, chairman Brad Grey's handpicked production team ushered in its first signature films, and the results largely were positive. Such low-budget comedies as "Nacho Libre" and "Jackass Number Two" scored with the young male demographic, while the studio is taking awards season by storm with heavies "Dreamgirls" and "Babel." (Tatiana Siegel)
UNIVERSAL PICTURES: Marking a transition
For Universal Pictures, the action occurred more on its lot than on the screens this year. In the spring, Marc Shmuger and David Linde were named the studio's chairman and co-chairman, respectively, after longtime chairman Stacey Snider left her position in February to run DreamWorks. Jon Gordon resigned as president of production in August, leaving Donna Langley as the studio's sole production chief. Moviewise, only the anti-romantic comedy "The Break-Up," starring Jennifer Aniston and Vince Vaughn, cracked the $100 million mark. "Miami Vice" proved to be an expensive disappointment. But the studio did offer a number of challenging films ? "United 93," "The Good Shepherd" and "Children of Men" ? that found spots high on critics' year-end lists. (Borys Kit)
NEW LINE CINEMA: Sitting on the sideline
New Line Cinema spent most of the year on the sidelines because few of its major movies seemed to find an audience. The studio's attempt to court the Christian market with "The Nativity Story" didn't walk on water, attracting only a limited number of the faithful. "Tenacious D: The Pick of Destiny" gave Jack Black the first bomb of his career. Despite all the buzz surrounding "Snakes on a Plane," which became an object lesson in the pluses and minuses of Internet buzz, it ultimately played like most B-movie releases. New Line is counting on next year's high-profile movies ? the tentpole fantasies "The Golden Compass" and "Inkheart," the musical "Hairspray," actioners "Rush Hour 3" and "Shoot 'Em Up" and dramas "Rendition" and "Fracture" ? to get it back into the game. (Borys Kit)
MGM: Getting back to basics
MGM re-entered the distribution marketplace in 2006 with an ambitious slate. But Sylvester Stallone's return to the ring provided its sole hit. While "Rocky Balboa" packed a punch, finally giving the franchise which dates back 30 years a fitting send-off, the distributor's other titles ? supplied mostly by the Weinstein Co. and Bauer Martinez ? largely fizzled. The disappointments included the comedy "School for Scoundrels," the Hilary Duff vehicle "Material Girls" and the lowbrow sequel "Van Wilder 2: The Rise of Taj." The company hopes to attract awards attention for "Home of the Brave," "Bobby," "Factory Girl" and "Miss Potter." And it is looking to 2007, when it will open such wide releases as "Hannibal Rising," "Pleasure of Your Company" and "Rescue Dawn." (Tatiana Siegel)