Summer 1999 Box Office Wrapup

The Jedis fought, the spies shagged, a witch attacked, and dead people were seen. Summing up another eventful summer box office, the season began as expected with enormous success for Star Wars Episode I and Austin Powers : The Spy Who Shagged Me, but ended with the surprising strength of The Blair Witch Project and The Sixth Sense. In customary fashion, total box office sales for the summer are expected to hit another all-time high nearing $3 billion by the end of Labor Day weekend. Higher ticket prices and new multiplexes that opened for business certainly helped the overall gross skyrocket, but a steady stream of commercially potent product kept moviegoers going back for more all summer long. Julia Roberts turned a double play by starring in two blockbusters, Universal turned its fortune around with a string of hits, and new filmmakers delivered some of the summer's most profitable motion pictures.

Eleven releases crossed the $100M barrier and a twelfth (American Pie) should join the club within weeks bringing the summer total to a record twelve. By comparison, the last three summers each gave birth to nine such blockbusters. However, three pictures should finish in the $70-100M range compared to five from last summer. Universal and Artisan have already found themselves new franchises with their hits The Mummy and The Blair Witch Project. The Brendan Fraser adventure film jumpstarted the summer season with a huge $43.4M opening and held the number one spot for two weeks. Then The Phantom Menace exploded taking the box office crown for three consecutive frames before a series of nine films each opened at the top one after the other. Finally in August, The Sixth Sense claimed the top spot all month long and into the fall season. "Trailers in front of Star Wars at the beginning of summer really encouraged movie fans to come back over and over again once they saw the exciting lineup of films making their way to theaters," explained Chuck Viane, distribution president of Buena Vista.

The summer of 1999 saw a small shift away from the usual plethora of big-budget action pics. There were no Lethal Weapons, no Die Hards, no killer comets, no Arnold, no Bruckheimer films. Instead, some of the most successful pictures were comedies. Normally only one or two summer comedies ever bring in over $100M in ticket sales but this year saw five such funny hits with two crossing $150M and another, Runaway Bride, approaching that level. In fact, Austin Powers, Big Daddy, and Bride delivered three of the five biggest comedy openings in history. And scheduling moves paid off for a number of films including Notting Hill which moved up to May from later in the summer, The Sixth Sense which was pushed up to August from the fall, and The Thomas Crown Affair which was pushed back to August from June to avoid the similarly-themed Entrapment and The General's Daughter.

By a wide margin, George Lucas' highly-anticipated Star Wars Episode I : The Phantom Menace claimed the crown for the summer box office and will finish as the highest-grossing film of the season, and most likely of the year. With a projected final domestic gross of $427M, the mighty prequel stands as the third biggest blockbuster ever behind 1997's Titanic and the original Star Wars which took in $461M over the course of twenty years. Other benchmarks Darth Maul and company set included the largest opening day gross ($28.5M), second biggest opening weekend ($64.8M), best second weekend gross ($51.4M during the Friday-to-Sunday portion of Memorial Day weekend), and the fastest time to reach the $100M, $200M, and $300M levels. The Phantom Menace also spent the summer crushing records across the globe and should boost its jaw-dropping worldwide gross to over $750M by the end of Labor Day weekend with ample room to surge ahead.

Of course Episode I didn't stop there. The $115M-budgeted movie was busy bringing in cash from other revenue streams as well including soundtrack sales, toys, books, as well as from the numerous cross-promotions. But the Jedi saga's deepest impact was felt on the summer release schedule. To avoid being lost in the Skywalker storm, studios left May and June relatively empty offering only a few worthy competitors to face the force while pushing back titles to the back half of summer to hopefully find breathing room. This summer, only 14 pictures were launched nationwide (800 or more theaters) in May-June compared to 20 the previous year. Conversely, the July-August period saw 29 wide releases versus 25 in 1998. What that clear field in early summer did was allow Star Wars to dominate screens and dollars but also allowed early summer films like Notting Hill, the Austin Powers sequel, Big Daddy, and Tarzan to clean up at the box office as moviegoers who had seen enough of Qui-Gon and pals wanted something else to see.

Probably the biggest surprise of the summer came from a documentary-style film, shot for about $60,000, but managed to capture over $130M from the pockets of moviegoers across North America. The Blair Witch Project stunned audiences at last winter's Sundance Film Festival and Artisan Entertainment shrewdly swooped in and acquired the distribution rights to the horror film for a reported $1.1M. In July, a limited release prompted sell-outs from coast to coast which was followed by a nationwide expansion that brought in a mammoth $29.2M in just 1,101 theaters. The success of The Blair Witch Project was absolutely incredible and shocked every industry observer. Moviegoers were entranced with how the film blurred the line between reality and fiction and went in droves to see a movie unlike anything they had seen before. And its addictive web site was credited with building a massive following and subsequently pushing those fans into the seats of theaters and could forever change the way studios look at the internet as a marketing and sales tool to promote movies.

Artisan's distribution chief Steve Rothenberg reflected on the performance of Blair Witch by noting that "it was helped by an intense internet marketing campaign and the timing was right as it came after years of gory horror films which people were getting bored with." Rothenberg also credited the gradual release pattern with some of the success since the long lines and sold out shows hammered home the notion that this was a must-see event, especially for the under-25 crowd. Also benefitting from Blair Witch fever was Artisan itself which established itself as a brand name supplier of cutting edge independent fare. The marketing and distribution of The Blair Witch Project this summer was universally praised. Jack Foley, president of distribution for USA Films, stated "kudos to Artisan for a phenomenal job with Blair Witch, and the nerve to aggressively pick it up at Sundance in the first place." Paul Dergarabedian, president of Exhibitor Relations, felt that Artisan "did a masterful job" while Buena Vista's Viane simply stated that "Artisan did THE marketing job of the summer with Blair Witch."

Studio executives learned this summer just how lucrative a smile Julia Roberts has. The megastar worked overtime with the two blockbuster romantic comedies Notting Hill, which features her romancing Hugh Grant to the tune of $117M, and Runaway Bride which reunited the actress with Richard Gere and looks to reach $153M in domestic ticket sales. Roberts broke the opening weekend record for romantic comedies with the $27.7M holiday debut of Hill only to shatter that benchmark with Bride's $35.1M premiere two months later. These films proved that Julia, in the right movie with the proper studio backing, can conquer all. Notting Hill has already passed its domestic gross in offshore markets and Bride has just begun seeing explosive openings in its first overseas ventures. Put them together and Notting Hill and Runaway Bride could conceivably gross over $600M at the worldwide box office - and that's before the additional revenue from home video, television, and soundtrack sales. That sound you hear is the sound of the pretty woman's agents demanding $20M+ for their client's next project.

The summer gone by was also a banner year for new filmmakers. Young men we had never heard of before offered us fresh new stories that relieved us from a string of glitzy and expensive remakes, and were rewarded by becoming some of the summer's most profitble films. Eduardo Sanchez and Daniel Myrick wrote, directed, and edited The Blair Witch Project which was shot on a microbudget of about $60,000 and will end up grossing about $141M domestically. Universal won big with American Pie, written and directed by Chris and Paul Weitz, which took its $11M production cost and found a huge group of fans that will end up spending over $100M at the domestic box office on the teen sex comedy. Finally, writer/director M. Night Shyamalan is watching his number one movie The Sixth Sense race towards the $200M hurdle. The $55M thriller should easily top $500M at the worldwide box office. Kudos (and mountains of cash) to Artisan, Universal, and Buena Vista for believing in these formerly unknown filmmakers who have captured the imaginations of moviegoers with their fresh new stories.

Family films were big hits this summer, but only if they had the Disney logo attached. The studio's recommended diet for kids on summer vacation is to feed them a new animated event film in mid-June followed by a live-action remake a month later. This year's tag team of Tarzan and Inspector Gadget will end up grossing a combined $268M beating out last year's Mulan/The Parent Trap combo ($187M) and 1997's pair of Hercules and George of the Jungle which brought in $204M. Other studios tried and failed in the family arena. Sony's Muppets From Space, Warner Bros. The Iron Giant, and Universal's Dudley Do-Right all disappointed and just could not excite enough people into spending their time and money. Dergarabedian put it simply that "Disney's brand name speaks for itself."

Looking at studio performance, Buena Vista was tops among distributors with six summer titles that will end up grossing a combined $565M+ by the end of their domestic runs. The sleeper smash The Sixth Sense is still going strong into the fall season and could go higher than $255M. Meanwhile jungle fever hit the animation division once again as Tarzan became Disney's biggest summer toon since The Lion King. Even the poorly-reviewed Inspector Gadget was a big success and should reach a healthy $97M. "Gadget and Sense were the two biggest surprises for me. Sense doubled my wildest dreams." exclaimed the studio's Chuck Viane.

Another studio that was all smiles this summer was Universal which saw an amazing turnaround. Last summer it sat on the bench with only three summer releases bringing in a weak total of $55M. This time Universal was a major player and offered hits like The Mummy, Notting Hill, and American Pie which all will finish north of the $100M mark. The studio's slate of six summer entries look to cume a muscular $480M. Paramount performed well with four profitable hits including the star vehicles Runaway Bride and The General's Daughter (both co-financed by Buena Vista) as well as South Park (handled overseas by Warner Bros.) and The Wood, a film produced with MTV Films. The foursome should end up grossing about $330M domestically.

Warner Bros., on the other hand, raced into the summer season fueled by a hot spring but faced some disappointing performances from its Fourth of July tentpole film Wild Wild West and Stanley Kubrick's long-awaited Eyes Wide Shut. Both movies opened at number one but suffered immediate audience erosion as word-of-mouth kept potential dollars away. Warners saw a respectable run from the action-horror entry Deep Blue Sea, which is swimming towards $75M, but failed to attract families to the superbly-reviewed animated film The Iron Giant.

The remaining studios mostly relied on one big film to carry them through the summer. Fox had the granddaddy of them all, The Phantom Menace, while New Line hit gold with the Austin Powers sequel. DreamWorks only had The Haunting to boast about even though the suspense thriller will claim the dubious distinction of having the largest opening weekend ($33.4M) for a film that failed to reach $100M. Sony had a number of flops like The Thirteenth Floor, Dick, and Universal Soldier: The Return but scored one major victory with the Adam Sandler comedy Big Daddy which is set to finish with around $164M.

In the specialized arena, arthouses had their share of hits and gave ticket buyers some alternatives to a summer full of Jar Jar, Mini-Me, and Julia. The Blair Witch Project began as a buzzworthy independent film but quickly joined the ranks of the blockbuster club. Instead, moviegoers flocked to see Rupert Everett in An Ideal Husband which has collected over $18M for Miramax, Cher in Tea With Mussolini ($14.1M in under 300 sites), and Lions Gate's The Red Violin which has brought in $9.3M from less than 300 theaters. Other success stories include the German hit Run Lola Run, distributed by Sony Classics, which has accelerated past the $6M mark in under 125 venues, and Artisan's music documentary Buena Vista Social Club which boasts a platinum-selling soundtrack and has displayed remarkable legs pulling in $5M in less than 70 theaters. Jack Foley of USA Films noted that "babyboomer adults just kept going to the arthouses and found these pictures one after the other. The legginess of some of these babyboomer pics has to be one of the more significant attributes of this summer."

Projected Total Grosses for Top 20 Summer Films

Top 20 Summer Openings

Last Updated : September 21, 1999

Written by Gitesh Pandya