Sony, Disney, Fox lead North American box office

LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) – A swaggering pirate, a hotshot roadster and a sexy new 007 helped bring moviegoers back to theaters last year, as domestic ticket sales recovered from a down year in 2005.

Along the way, Sony Pictures reached new heights, claiming 13 No. 1 releases and a domestic box office record of $1.698 billion. Second-ranked Disney ($1.5 billion) claimed the top two films of the year with "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest" ($423 million) and "Cars" ($244 million).

20th Century Fox held steady at No. 3 ($1.4 billion) thanks to a solid string of films including "X-Men: The Last Stand," "Ice Age: The Meltdown" and "The Devil Wears Prada."

Meanwhile, 2005 market leader Warner Bros. Pictures, which arguably had one of the most anticipated slates of the year, tumbled to fourth ($1.1 billion), because of such misfires as "Poseidon," "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.

Paramount Pictures ($953 million) made some gains thanks to its acquisition of DreamWorks, which provided the studio's top-grossing movie, the animated film "Over the Hedge."

Universal Pictures ($796 million) also struggled — not only did it lose longtime chief Stacey Snider to DreamWorks, but it propelled only one film, the romantic comedy "The Break-Up," into the $100 million club.

New Line Cinema ($252 million) and MGM ($171 million) brought up the rear, with only one movie between them — the latter studio's "Rocky Balboa" — cracking $50 million.

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 installed a new marketing head in Valerie Van Galder and pushed 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, the studio's chairman of marketing and distribution. "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 box office. 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 box office 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 December 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 Holiday," two movies with appeal for women that opened within seven days of each other.

"There seem to be too many companies putting multiple entries into the marketplace," said Disney distribution president Chuck Viane. "We're going against that trend. 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."

Sequels also were a driving force last year, with five of the top 10 films encores to previous successes. That trend will continue this year when Disney 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."

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.

Reuters/Hollywood Reporter



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