It's been feeling a lot like Christmas lately for Universal Pictures. With "Dr Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas" acting as Santa Claus for its bottom line, Universal is cresting a two-year wave that has propelled the studio from the bottom to the top of the domestic film marketplace and left it poised to shatter its previous annual high-revenue mark. Three weeks in release, "The Grinch" continues to demolish the competition. The Imagine Entertainment film has racked up more than $135 million in ticket sales, untold millions more through various merchandising deals and shows no signs of slowing down through the holiday season. With overall ticket revenues for Universal films already above $900 million for the year and closing fast on last year's record of $934 million, these are heady days indeed at the studio. Universal executives can barely contain their glee over the phenomenal success of "The Grinch" a property that promises to continue churning up profits for years to come through annual TV broadcasts, video sales and tie-ins at Universal theme parks. But they are quick to point out that the Jim Carrey feature is far from the only reason for the studio's about-face. They say a series of successful releases in 1999 and 2000 not all of them blockbusters are responsible for helping the once-embattled studio claw its way back to the top of the Hollywood heap.

"It's been a remarkable turnaround and a substantial one," said Marc Shmuger, president of marketing for Universal Pictures. "If it happened in a single year you could say it was a fluke, but over a couple of years it demonstrates that we have built a solid foundation." When "The Grinch" debuted Nov. 17, it was the fifth consecutive Universal picture to lead its opening weekend in gross receipts, an almost unheard of streak, said Tom Borys, president of AC Neilsen EDI. Besides "The Grinch," the other films that debuted at the top of the heap on their respective opening weekends were "The Nutty Professor II: The Klumps" (which has earned $123 million to date), "Bring It On" ($67 million), "The Watcher" ($28 million) and "Meet The Parents" ($148 million). "That's a hot streak, there's no question. It's extremely rare," Borys said. "What's more impressive is that (Universal) has a chance to have five films gross over $100 million this year. They have four now and that's the most they've ever had in one year." In addition to the three movies mentioned above, "Erin Brockovich," which was released in March with Universal controlling the domestic distribution, has earned $125.5 million. The Nicolas Cage vehicle, "The Family Man," which is slated to open Dec. 22, is already drawing Oscar talk and stands a good chance to become the sixth film in Universal's top-grossing streak. Industry observers are saying the film also could reach the $100 million mark in domestic sales, which includes the United States and Canada. Together, these films could push Universal above the $1 billion mark for the first time ever. "They're on an incredible roll; they must just be pinching themselves right now," said Paul Dergarabedian, president of Exhibitor Relations, an L.A.-based box office tracking service. "They've held the No. 1 spot for 16 out of 48 weekends this year, more than anyone else." More importantly, through Nov. 26 Universal had increased its share of the domestic marketplace to 13.8 percent, Borys said, several points up from last year. Universal now trails only the Walt Disney Co.'s Buena Vista and its myriad film units for the largest share of the domestic film audience.


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