Movies/32"/mike1st/mark2nd

By FRANK SWERTLOW

Staff Reporter

For the first time ever, two Hollywood studios have broken the coveted $1 billion mark in domestic box-office receipts, fueling Hollywood's biggest financial payday for a single year nearly $7 billion.

The billion-dollar studios are Walt Disney Co. and Paramount Pictures, finishing in first and second place, respectively, for the year. Through Dec. 27, Disney pulled in $1.06 billion, for a 16.2 percent U.S. market share, marking the fourth time in the past five years that the Burbank-based company has led the pack.

Paramount's $1.03 billion in domestic box office, through Dec. 27, gives it a 15.8 percent market share.

So how did Hollywood achieve its record-setting year? Primarily by doing what it does best producing big, sprawling movies.

The largest single contributor was "Titanic," the mammoth Fox-Paramount production that opened Dec. 18, 1997, but generated $440 million in 1998, more than two-thirds of its total U.S. revenues.

Several other big-budget films contributed significantly, as well.

"There was much better box-office depth," said Dan Marks, senior vice president of A.C. NielsenEDI Inc., which charts box-office returns. "We had some good commercial films."

Among them was Disney's "Armageddon" (the highest-grossing 1998 release, with $201.6 million in domestic box office through Dec. 27) and "Enemy of the State." Major contributors to Paramount's success were "The Truman Show," which pulled in $125.6 million, and "Deep Impact," which brought in $140.4 million for the studio.

Making the record year even more impressive, Marks said, was that Hollywood had 12 fewer "wide-release" films in 1998 than in 1997. A wide-release film is one that appears in more than 1,500 theaters.

"It shows how healthy the business is if there are less films but the box office is still higher," he said.

Ironically, fewer wide-release films may have actually helped boost the overall box office by avoiding a cluttered market in which one big-budget film opens against another.

Not all of Hollywood's big-budget movies were hits, however, as evidenced by Sony Pictures Entertainment's much-hyped "Godzilla," which never lived up to its domestic potential.

In addition to blockbuster hits, there was a more diverse lineup of films released in 1998, and less reliance on traditional action-adventure thrillers that marked previous seasons.

"There was a great balance of films in 1998," said Robert Bucksbaum, president of Reel Source Inc., a company that analyzes box-office returns. "There were many great comedies each quarter. You had 'The Wedding Singer' in the first quarter, 'There's Something About Mary' in the second quarter, 'Rush' and 'Waterboy' in the third and now 'Patch Adams.' "

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