Summer 1998 Wrapup
Another summer, another record. Thanks to an abundance of popular films, and the perennial increase in ticket prices, box office sales hit a new record for the just-completed summer season with a total of $2.6 billion collected at the ticket counter. That was enough to beat last year's tally of $2.2 billion by 16%. 1997's summer play period was driven by Men in Black, The Lost World, and Air Force One. Admissions also set a new record this year with 532 million tickets torn besting 1994's summer total of 526 million. That summer was led by megahits like Forrest Gump and The Lion King as well as action blockbusters like True Lies and Speed.
Overall, moviegoers spread their dollars around and made hits out of numerous movies instead of rallying behind one or two behemoths. Going into the summer, Sony's Godzilla and Buena Vista's Armageddon were seen as the two tentpole pictures that would destroy all competition in their path. Godzilla, though a hit with $137M in projected final sales, could not come close to the high expectations the industry had for it. The giant lizard also fell far short of the two previous Memorial Day releases The Lost World, which grossed $229M last year, and 1996's Mission: Impossible which heisted $181M. Armageddon, on the other hand, launched with an opening that was strong, but not as phenomenal as was expected given the film's gargantuan marketing push. But the Bruce Willis comet picture packed quite a punch with impressive special effects, a big name star, a hot soundtrack, and a promotional campaign with McDonalds that kept awareness for the film at high levels for several weeks after its release date. That was enough to give Armageddon the summer box office crown with $192.1M as of Labor Day and a projected $202M overall domestic gross.
Buena Vista, powered by the Jerry Bruckheimer-produced asteroid adventure, led all studios with $543M in ticket sales over the summer period followed closely by Fox with $529M. However, when looking at the projected final grosses of each distributor's summer releases, the legs of the sleeper hit There's Something About Mary pushes Fox ahead with an estimated $614M compared to Buena Vista's $558M. Either way, both studios had mostly hits on their hands and vaulted across $500M in summer grosses joining only Sony which achieved it last year with Men in Black, Air Force One, and My Best Friend's Wedding. Some of the season's other surprising overachievers included Fox's Doctor Dolittle and Ever After. And with Disney's last two summer animated films, Hercules and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, grossing about $100M a piece, it looked as if demand for a Disney toon was leveling out. Instead, the well-reviewed Mulan charmed families and will ride to a projected final gross of $120M.
Aside from Fox and Disney, other studios were able to take a respectable portion of the box office pie as well. Paramount saw better-than-expected returns from Deep Impact and The Truman Show. Impact opened the summer with a colossal bang with its $41.2M opening and is on course to finish with $141M which is much better than anyone anticipated. Truman was risky since it was not a conventional summer film or a Jim Carrey comedy but it topped the charts for two weeks (as did Impact) and will eventually go off the air with $127M. Paramount's expensive Snake Eyes stumbled a little but will finish with a respectable $60M.
While Sony got battered with Godzilla, it still saw an impressive performance by The Mask of Zorro which should top out at $94M. Can't Hardly Wait and Madeline were modest hits with projected final grosses of $25 and $29M respectively. Warner Bros. had the largest lineup with eight wide releases debuting during the summer. Four of them, Quest for Camelot, Almost Heroes, Wrongfully Accused, and The Avengers were major disappointments, Why Do Fools Fall In Love? is having a moderate run, and A Perfect Murder and The Negotiator had decent showings. The megabudgeted Lethal Weapon 4 surprised many industry observers by attracting almost as many dollars as the last two films in the franchise which were released in 1989 and 1992. With a projected domestic take of $131M, and a soaring overseas run already under way, Weapon 4 should easily break $300M worldwide and finally give Warners something to smile about.
DreamWorks saw a decent, but less-than-expected turnout for Small Soldiers but hit gold with Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan. Budgeted at around $65M, Ryan should march to $200M this fall and could add more coin in the winter when award nominations are announced. With Ryan, the director made it two summers in a row where his film took the runnerup award. Over at Universal, folks are glad that the summer is gone. Two of its three titles, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and BASEketball, flopped while its well-reviewed crime pic Out of Sight just didn't register with ticket buyers and should finish with a somewhat disappointing $39M.
The breadth in the marketplace was evidenced by the fact that nine films crossed the $100M mark during the summer. The last two summers also gave birth to nine films that reached that pinnacle, but a few needed extra time in the fall to accomplish the feat while in 1998 all nine reached the blockbuster mark by late-August. No other summer titles are expected to reach $100M. But the real story was in midlevel performers. A dozen releases will finish their domestic runs with $50-100M - more than the last two summers combined. And more movies opened huge as seven pics debuted with $30M+ opening weekend grosses versus four last summer and three in the summer of 1996.
A small handful of the bigger summer pictures have already launched lucrative international campaigns and should see a larger overseas cume than domestic. Competing comet flicks Deep Impact and Armageddon have each grossed over $185M offshore already with the Bruce Willis pic yet to open in major territories. Godzilla has chomped on $145M overseas, beating domestic, and could gobble up another $100M before finishing. Mulan has debuted in a few Latin American markets with much of its rollout in the fall which should lead to over $300M worldwide. Fox's Doctor Dolittle is also attracting large crowds around the world with $70M in the bank and maybe $130M by its end pushing its global tally past the $270M mark that The Nutty Professor reached two years ago. Also, The X Files has millions of fans waiting in anticipation in many countries as the sci-fi drama should hit $200M worldwide.
So all in all, Armageddon and Saving Private Ryan were the two heavy hitters of the season while There's Something About Mary proved she could go head-to-head with the boys of summer. No box office analyst has been able to recall a movie that had so much durability that it finally hit number one in its eighth weekend of wide release as Mary did over the Labor Day weekend. The Cameron Diaz starrer has been incredibly sturdy at the box office and could possibly gross more than the summer champ Armageddon by the end of its run. But then again, a summer box office would never be complete without a few nice surprises.
The following tables provide more facts and figures on the summer box office:
1. Projected Final Grosses
2. Top 20 Summer Openings
3. Gross vs. Budget Comparison
4. Legs of Top 10 Summer Films
Last Updated : September 10, 1998
Written by Gitesh Pandya