FRANK SWERTLOW

Staff Reporter

"Titanic" has given Paramount Pictures the biggest slice of the box-office pie so far this year and most likely bragging rights as 1998's top studio.

But what about No. 2?

As the critical fall and holiday movie season gets under way, it's a horse race among Twentieth Century Fox, Walt Disney Co.'s Buena Vista division and Sony Pictures.

"Second place is going to be a pretty tough call," said Steve Cesinger, an investment banker specializing in the entertainment industry at Los Angeles-based Greif & Co.

At this point, Disney appears to have the edge, based on an especially large number of releases to come out in the next three months. They include "A Bug's Life," which opens Nov. 25, and which Reel Source Inc., a tracking service, estimates will generate more than $100 million at the box office.

Harold Vogel, an analyst at S.G. Cowen Securities Corp., is so bullish on Disney that he thinks it might even catch Paramount. "It's a little early," he said. "Christmas is very busy. It's not over and 'Bug's Life' is still ahead."

The annual battle for market share among the major studios is no small matter in Hollywood. While there is no direct financial benefit, there are many indirect ones, such as being known as a "hot" studio that can attract the hottest talent. The won-lost scorecard also has a way of determining the fate of many a studio chief.

Being No. 1 generally is considered less important than not being No. 7 or 8.

"It's not cyclical it's the law of averages," said Paul D'Addario, managing director of Century City-based Donaldson, Lufkin & Jenrette Securities Corp.'s Entertainment Group.

"We employ the Monte Carlo analysis that looks at a film as a specific financial model," D'Addario said. "Sometimes you get lucky and sometimes you get unlucky. It's more of an art than a science."

"During the past four years, it has been a revolving door," said Marion Boucher Soper, an analyst at Bear, Stearns & Co. "You can go from first place to fifth and fifth place to first. It's not that unusual. It's a battle of big-budget hits, and Paramount had 'Titanic' and Sony had 'Godzilla.' "

As of now it's considered unlikely that any studio will topple Paramount from the No. 1 slot, especially with a "Star Trek" film on tap for the holidays. As of Sept. 20, it holds 17.8 percent of the domestic box office, up from 11.2 percent in 1997, on the strength of "Titanic," "The Truman Show," "Deep Impact" and other films.

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