Making Money at the Movies

Led by Disney, Film Studios Enjoy 6% Spike at Box Office

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LOS ANGELES ( -- The potent combination of "Pirates" and Pixar enabled Walt Disney Co. to leap from No. 7 to tops at the box office this summer, while venerable Hollywood powerhouse Warner Bros. stumbled with overpriced fare in a season that replanted the flag for moviegoing.

The reversal of fortune-grosses jumped 6% from the doldrums of the previous summer, and attendance was up nearly 3%-comes at a pivotal time for the movie industry as it struggles to compete in a video-game-, iPod- and broadband-obsessed culture.

Disney, Sony and 20th Century Fox finished in the top three, respectively, in box-office receipts-with Sony, in fact, rocketing from eighth place last year. Paramount Pictures, rocked by Tom Cruise-fueled controversy and a management shakeup, ended the summer in fourth place, according to box-office tracking firm Exhibitor Relations Co.

Warner Bros., which usually breathes rarified air near the top of the studio heap, ended up No. 5, dragged down by underperformers such as "Poseidon," "Lady in the Water" and "The Ant Bully." While "Superman Returns" could eventually pull in $400 million worldwide, that's about $100 million less than studio executives expected for a movie that cost about $200 million to make and another $100 million to market.

NBC Universal's Universal Pictures misfired on the expensive action movie "Miami Vice," which showed that audiences continue to snub remakes, and couldn't move past No. 6 even with the $118-million-grossing "The Break-Up" and solid performer "The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift."

One of the summer's bravest-experiments-turned-biggest-disappointments, "Snakes on a Plane," made $31.5 million of New Line Cinema's unspectacular $49.2 million overall take, putting the studio in eighth place. Moreover, it failed to muster a hit to follow last year's surprise blockbuster "Wedding Crashers."

The strength of the overall summer might have been its diversity, said Jeff Blake, chairman-marketing and distribution for Sony's Columbia TriStar Motion Picture Group, whose studio has topped the $1 billion mark in domestic box office and has had eight movies open at No. 1 this year.

"Studios didn't just rely on blockbusters," Mr. Blake said. "We saw the return of those midlevel hits that really rounded out the schedule." Among them: Disney's "Invincible," Fox's "The Devil Wears Prada," Universal Pictures' "You, Me and Dupree," Paramount's "Nacho Libre" and Sony's "Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby."

Outright blockbusters were prevalent too, with Disney's "Pirates" and "Cars" keeping company with Fox's "X-Men: The Last Stand," DreamWorks/Paramount's "Over the Hedge" and Sony's "DaVinci Code."

Marketing that aimed at every media platform drew audiences back after the drought of 2005. Studios reached out to Xbox Live with high-definition trailers, pages dedicated to movie characters on and increasing amounts of money shifted to emerging media from traditional.

luring the lapsed

Many of the movies delivered on their promises, with such popcorn fare as "X-Men: The Last Stand," family flick "Monster House" and dancing drama "Step Up" generating strong word of mouth. Films such as "Little Miss Sunshine," "An Inconvenient Truth" and "World Trade Center" banked considerable business from adults, bringing back some lapsed moviegoers.

On the flip side, critics took a pounding, with audiences showing up in droves for movies that were outright panned. "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest" became the highest-grossing movie of the summer and the year to date, and "DaVinci Code" provided a rare adult-skewing blockbuster with its $217.5 million domestic take. Neither were critical darlings.

Audiences responded to sequels, always a favorite with studios that love their built-in awareness and easier marketability. With that as a backdrop, Hollywood will roll out a number of heavy-hitting sequels next summer, including Disney's "Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End," DreamWorks' "Shrek 3," Sony's "Spider-Man 3," Fox's "Fantastic Four 2" and Warner Bros.' "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix."

Even though moviegoers bought more than 581 million tickets this season, their loyalty can't be taken for granted, said Paul Dergarabedian, president of Exhibitor Relations. "The level of the game has been raised," he said. "Even though this was a good summer, Hollywood can't get complacent."
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