Aug. 10, 2006

Sony in billion-dollar club
'Talladega' help's put studio in driver's seat

By Nicole Sperling
The Hollywood Reporter

Sony Pictures Entertainment hit $1 billion in domestic boxoffice Tuesday, becoming the first studio to do so this year. But the Walt Disney Studio's Buena Vista distribution arm was nipping at its heels and was expected to reach the important milestone Wednesday. Only $2.6 million separated the top two studios when Tuesday's boxoffice receipts were totaled, with Sony ending the day with a little more than $1.002 billion in its till and Buena Vista nudging the billion-dollar mark with $999.9 million.

Sony achieved the feat with the help of eight films that opened at No. 1, including this past weekend's boxoffice topper, "Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby," starring Will Ferrell and directed by Adam McKay. Films that have performed strongly for the studio include Ron Howard's "The Da Vinci Code," the Adam Sandler starrer "Click" and Screen Gems' "Underworld: Evolution."

It was "Talladega" that pushed Sony over the top: The comedy earned $7 million on Monday and $5.4 million Tuesday, and the film is on track to reach $70 million by the end of its first week in theaters.

Disney scaled the heights thanks to the strength of the two top-grossing films of the year: "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest," which now has grossed close to $383 million, and Pixar Animation's "Cars," which now stands at $237.8 million.

"We beat the timetable," said Jeff Blake, chairman of worldwide marketing and distribution at the Columbia TriStar Motion Picture Group and vice chairman of Sony Pictures Entertainment. He had been hoping to reach the milestone by summer's end. "I'm glad we've hit it, and we have some mileage left in our pictures, especially 'Talladega Nights,' " he added.

Sony also expects to hit the $1 billion mark at the international boxoffice by month's end. On the international front, 20th Century Fox International was the first studio to the $1 billion bar this year, doing so June 10.

On the domestic scene, Sony and Warner Bros. Pictures have each released nine No. 1 films in a single year. But Sony hopes to set a new record by year's end with a slate of highly anticipated projects, including the Will Smith starrer "The Pursuit of Happyness," Sony Pictures Animation's "Open Season" and Columbia and MGM's James Bond actioner "Casino Royale."

For Disney, beyond its top two films, the next-highest grosser is the sled dog adventure "Eight Below," which has earned $81.6 million since bowing in February.

"For seven of the last nine years, we've reached this milestone," Buena Vista president of distribution Chuck Viane said. "We are thrilled to have maintained such strong consistency in the marketplace. It will be interesting to see how high we can take this number. Between this weekend's 'Step Up,' 'Invincible,' 'The Prestige, 'The Santa Clause 3' and 'Deja Vu,' among others, it could wind up being a very good year."

Sony Pictures said as a result of this year's showing, it has exceeded $1 billion in domestic boxoffice for five straight years, a milestone reached by only one other studio, Warners.

However, in order to claim a billion-dollar purse in 2005, Sony -- whose releases came up slightly shy of $1 billion -- also included grosses from two MGM releases, "Beauty Shop" and "The Amityville Horror." The Sony Corp. of America was part of a consortium of investors that bought MGM in spring 2005 -- the acquisition closed April 8, shortly after "Beauty Shop" opened and a week before "Amityville" bowed, and Sony maintained the position that it had overseen their releases.

This year, Sony has led the pack, controlling about 18% of all North American ticket sales. Other titles that contributed to its winning streak were the Robin Williams comedy "RV"; "Pink Panther," starring Steve Martin; Screen Gems' "When a Stranger Calls"; and TriStar Pictures' "Silent Hill."

The current market share leader among the studios, Sony previously reigned as No. 1 in market share for an entire year in 2002 and 2004. It was ranked No. 2 in 2003. Its cumulative grosses from 2002 to the present now exceed the $6 billion mark.
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