Even when its primary franchise falls flat, Walt Disney Co. dominates the field in the competition between motion picture studios.
Disney's year at the box office is usually led by its summer animated feature. But the relatively disappointing performance of its 1996 release "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" which generated $100 million in U.S. and Canadian theaters, a pittance compared with "The Lion King" and "Aladdin" sparked speculation that the Mouse was losing his magic.
No matter. Disney was the only studio to release five movies that crossed the $100 million box office barrier, and its Buena Vista Pictures Distribution dominated studio market share for the third year in a row.
Buena Vista also set a new record for box office receipts in 1996, generating $1.22 billion on the strength of "The Rock" and other hit films it distributed.
That total surpassed Buena Vista's own record of $1.10 billion in 1995.
Warner Bros., which consistently topped market share in the early 1990s, had to settle for second place once again last year. It made $918 million at the box office in 1996 on 34 films which easily topped 1995's performance of $867 million on 33 films.
Domestic box office is not an accurate measure of a studio's fiscal performance. For one thing, less than half the total actually goes to the studio; the rest goes to the various exhibitors. For another, most of a film's revenues are usually generated through a combination of overseas exhibition, home video sales, television distribution and other sources.
Still, box office revenues are usually a valuable indicator of the success or failure of a given studio's motion picture slate, because movies that do well in theaters usually generate high sales through other distribution channels.
Among the majors, there were a few dramatic winners and losers last year. Paramount Pictures, No. 3 on the List, jumped from No. 5 in 1995 by bringing in $741 million at the box office on 25 movies. In 1995, it made only $530 million on 23 films.
Much of Paramount's success has to be attributed to its summer Tom Cruise release "Mission: Impossible," which alone generated 24.4 percent of the studio's total yearly box office take.
Another studio deeply thankful for a single mega-hit was 20th Century Fox, whose blockbuster "Independence Day" was the year's most popular film. Taking in over $306 million, the movie helped propel Fox from No. 6 on last year's List to No. 4 this year.
Sony Pictures Entertainment and Universal Studios Inc. had the roughest sledding in 1996.
Sony, troubled for years by dismal film performances, saw the dismissal of its two top executives Alan Levine and Mark Canton last year. Sony released 41 films in 1996 (two more than Disney) but made only $618.7 million at the box office. The studio fell from No. 3 on last year's List to No. 5 this year.
Universal also had little to crow about last year other than its surprise hit "The Nutty Professor." Flops like "Sgt. Bilko," "Flipper" and "Daylight" caused the studio to sag from No. 4 in 1995 to No. 6 in 1996.
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