With no sinking ships or killer comets, there was some debate twelve months ago as to whether last year could possibly be bigger than 1998. But bigger it was as moviegoers spent a record $7.46 billion at cinemas across the United States and Canada as the cumulative box office rose 8.5%. But much of the credit for the gain goes to higher ticket prices and newly opened multiplexes. Still, a handful of films hit the jackpot as 17 new releases crossed the $100M domestic mark with two more holiday hits approaching the century mark in January. More amazing is the fact that four different films crossed the $200M barrier in the same year - a new record. Opening weekends got bigger too as 3,000-theater debuts almost became standard for major studio releases. Eleven films bowed with over $30M frames and three even opened north of $50M.

George Lucas was expected to dominate the year with his highly anticipated Star Wars prequel and he failed to disappoint. But the surprising success of The Sixth Sense and The Blair Witch Project stood out as the stories that people remembered. Julia Roberts hit two home runs with the romantic comedies Notting Hill and Runaway Bride. And Disney once again stood proudly as the number one studio for the fifth time in the last six years claiming three of the year's top six hits. Warner Bros. and Universal saw much improvement over 1998 while many other studios relied on one large smash to keep them afloat all year long.

Taking the box office crown to nobody's surprise in 1999 was Star Wars Episode I : The Phantom Menace. Anticipation for a motion picture had not been so frenzied since Luke Skywalker discovered who his dad was in 1983. Fans waited on line in front of their local theater weeks before the mighty prequel opened. Opening day tickets were scalped for hundreds of dollars. And a number of records were obliterated once Anakin and pals hit the big screen. With an eye-popping $430M in domestic sales, Menace went on to become the biggest grosser of the year and the third highest-grossing film of all-time after Titanic and the original Star Wars with its rereleases. Around the world, patrons piled into theaters pushing the George Lucas megablockbuster to $922M in global grosses - second only to the iceberg romance.

But Episode I's real impact was felt elsewhere. It shifted overall moviegoing into overdrive and lifted its neighboring competitors to new heights. Patrons enjoyed the trailers and posters for other films during their Star Wars trip and came back over and over again to entertain themselves at cinemas all summer long. With immense demand for sci-fi, action, and special effects, both The Matrix and The Mummy gave fans what they were craving while the prequel was still weeks away. After the famed May 19th launch, ticket buyers kept coming back for blockbuster comedies and suspense thrillers. Many people at many studios have thanks to give to George Lucas for providing the fuel that drove the business in 1999.

Starpower certainly came into question in 1999. Highly paid actors hired to give a project box office clout saw many of their films ignored by moviegoers. Harrison Ford (Random Hearts), Robin Williams (Jakob the Liar), Jim Carrey (Man on the Moon), Brad Pitt (Fight Club), Jodie Foster (Anna and the King), Kevin Costner (For Love of the Game), Clint Eastwood (True Crime), Michelle Pfeiffer (The Deep End of the Ocean), Sharon Stone (Gloria), and Nicolas Cage (8MM and Bringing Out the Dead) all saw disappointing ticket sales to their latest pictures. Even with overseas grosses and video revenue added in, it will be difficult for any of these movies to match their production and marketing costs.

However, a genre that did allow studio executives to see green was high school comedy. An endless line of Scream ripoffs over the last two years forced the industry to shift away to less violent and more upbeat fare. Teen and young adult audiences were the driving force behind such profitable titles as American Pie ($11M production budget/$102M domestic gross), She's All That ($10M/$63M), Varsity Blues ($15M/$53M), and of course that home movie shot in the woods.

In the arena of family films, it was next to impossible to beat Disney at its own game. Other studios tried to no avail to introduce kidpics into the marketplace but got burned. Strikeouts included Sony's Muppets From Space and The Adventures of Elmo in Grouchland, Universal's Dudley Do-Right, plus Warner Bros. toons The King and I and The Iron Giant. But the holiday season saw a reversal with the arrival of Pokémon, from Warners, and Stuart Little from Sony which together will gross over $200M.

Battling the blockbuster behemoths, the arthouses had some notable hits in 1999. USA Films, the newly formed company combining October Films and Gramercy Pictures, did well with Being John Malkovich which has topped $18M thus far and is still holding on well. The German hit Run Lola Run kept things moving for Sony Pictures Classics while Fox Searchlight hit gold early in the year with Waking Ned Devine and currently has the likely Oscar candidate Boys Don't Cry.

Lions Gate collected $10M for the summer hit The Red Violin and picked up domestic rights to Kevin Smith's Dogma which has grossed a company record $29M to date. Aside from the Blair Witch success, Artisan also handled Buena Vista Social Club which has grossed $7M and is steamrolling through award season picking up almost every documentary award. Even Hindi-language films imported from India managed to hit the U.S. Top 20 as films like Taal and Hum Saath-Saath Hain played in just a few dozen cinemas but grossed $2M each.

Big studios got in the game of releasing offbeat films that normally go through the channels of indie distributors but found it to be a hard game to play. Buena Vista's Rushmore, Sony's Go, and Paramount's A Simple Plan and Election won the hearts of critics but in national release, only managed grosses in the mid-teens. But DreamWorks showed these veteran studios how it's done with their carefully designed release of American Beauty which has grossed over $70M to date.

Looking ahead, the year 2000 has no definite megablockbusters the caliber of Titanic or The Phantom Menace to anchor a box office explosion. But every year surprise hits pop up that shock the world and help old records get shattered. In the end, moviegoers will decide how much of their own money will be spent at their local cinema so if Hollywood keeps making good films, the masses will come.

The table below wraps up the year in the lives of Hollywood's studios and distributors. Annual grosses cover the 364-day period of January 4, 1999 - January 2, 2000 (the Monday after New Year's weekend 1999 until the Sunday of New Year's weekend 2000). Listed are the grosses for both 1999 and 1998 and the percentage change. Also noted are the number of wide releases in 1999 (movies opening or expanding to 600 or more theaters) and the total weekends at number one.

Click on the distributor's name to read its Studio Spotlight summary:

# Distributor 1999 1998 % chg. Wide Releases Wknds at #1
1 Buena Vista $ 1,241.0 $ 1,109.0 12% 18 10
2 Warner Bros. 1,042.0 756.7 38% 20 11
3 Universal 934.0 392.1 138% 16 7
4 Paramount 846.7 1,046.0 -19% 15 8
5 Fox 793.9 721.8 10% 16 5
6 Sony 636.6 747.7 -15% 21 4
7 DreamWorks 324.0 467.2 -31% 6 3
8 Miramax 319.5 393.9 -19% 8 1
9 MGM/UA 310.1 182.2 70% 6 2
10 New Line 309.2 537.5 -42% 7 1

Source: ACNielsen EDI

Take a look back at the year that was with the lists below which include projected final grosses for 1999's top attractions:

Top 50 Highest-Grossing Releases of 1999

Top 50 Opening Weekends of 1999

Noteworthy Box Office Facts of 1999

Last Updated : January 6, 2000

Written by Gitesh Pandya