Box Office Busts Records In '98

A doomed ship, space rocks, combat and comedy combined to propel Hollywood to a record year at the box office, pulling in nearly $7 billion in North America alone.

The industry reaped the benefits of Titanic, which was actually released in late 1997 but racked up $488 million in 1998. That pushed the movie's total to a record $600 million in North America.

So popular was the sinking-ship epic that it was still collecting hundreds of thousands of dollars a week at the box office even as the video version was being released.

Studios also benefited from a wide range of successful - though not record-shattering - movies, including 11 that grossed more than $100 million and a 12th, A Bug's Life, that was likely to hit that milestone this weekend.

Movie executives also cited improvements in exhibition, particularly the increasing number of megaplexes that offer dozens of screens, cleaner lobbies, and more comfortable seats.

"Finally, the excellent motion picture has the opportunity to play in the excellent theater," said Disney distribution head Phil Barlow. "I believe the movies are considerably better, but the theaters are tremendously better."

That $7 billion North American total was an increase of more than 9 percent over last year.

Attendance jumped more than 5 percent, to 1.46 billion tickets sold, according to Exhibitor Relations Co. Inc.

Since 1988, domestic receipts have surged 56 percent, while the average ticket price has gone up just 16 percent. Attendance has increased 35 percent, while the population has risen about 11 percent.

The boom in movie grosses, however, is being offset by increasing costs. The average movie cost $53.4 million to make plus $22.2 million to sell in 1997, and the numbers likely were higher in 1998.

"We have to continually buck the tide of increasing costs," said Rob Friedman, vice chairman of the Paramount Motion Picture Group.

Still, studio officials are encouraged by the year-end numbers.

In 1998, Paramount and Disney had more than $1 billion each in domestic grosses, while 20th Century Fox topped $730 million and Sony and Warner Bros. each neared $700 million.

Universal had a string of flops that led to a management shakeup. The Seagrams-owned studio took in only $330 million, about a 5 percent market share.

Only one movie passed $200 million - Armageddon with $202 million - though Saving Private Ryan came close with more than $190 million.

Instead, the spoils were spread around to a greater extent than in the past.

Other movies joining the $100 million-plus club were There's Something About Mary ($173.7 million), Doctor Dolittle ($144.1 million), The Waterboy ($140.9 million through Dec. 20), Deep Impact ($140.5 million), Godzilla ($136 million), Rush Hour ($133 million), Lethal Weapon 4 ($129.7 million, The Truman Show ($125.6 million) and Mulan ($120.6 million).

A Bug's Life" had $96.3 million going into the weekend, with plenty of juice left in its release.

A wide range of genres scored at the box office. While Armageddon and Godzilla did well by offering traditional summer escapism, Ryan attracted a large audience with an unflinching look at war.

And three of the Top 5 movies made people laugh: Mary, Dolittle, and The Waterboy.

"The big story coming out of this year was that comedies did really well," said Dolittle producer John Davis. "You had a lot of big-grossing family kind of pictures that appealed to a little older family audience."

Here are the 20 top-grossing films of 1998, according to Exhibitor Relations Co. Inc. Figures reflect grosses through Dec. 20 and don't include Sunday's weekend estimates. Also excluded is Titanic, which was released in December 1997.

  • Armageddon, $201.6 million.

  • Saving Private Ryan, $190.4 million.

  • There's Something About Mary, $173.7 million.

  • Doctor Dolittle, $144.1 million.

  • The Waterboy, $140.9 million.

  • Deep Impact, $140.5 million.

  • Godzilla, $136 million.

  • Rush Hour, $133 million.

  • Lethal Weapon 4, $129.7 million.

  • The Truman Show, $125.6 million.
  • Mulan, $120.6 million.

  • A Bug's Life, $96.3 million.

  • The Mask of Zorro, $93.6 million.

  • Antz, $87 million.

  • The X-Files Movie, $83.9 million.

  • The Wedding Singer, $80.2 million.

  • Enemy of the State, $79.1 million.

  • City of Angels, $78.6 million.

  • The Rugrats Movie, $76.8 million.

  • The Horse Whisperer, $75.4 million.