Hollywood closed the books on the 1992 box office year Sunday with an impressive New Year's weekend that capped a year in which moviegoers bought almost $5 billion worth of tickets.
If estimates for the year -- calculated by various sources to be hovering above $4.9 billion -- hold, it would be the film industry's third best year in U.S. and Canadian box office grosses. According to figures issued by the Motion Picture Association of America, the strongest box- office year was 1989 with $5.03 billion in tickets sold, followed by 1990 with $5.02 billion. The year just ended would narrowly surpass the $4.8 billion grossed in 1991.
One industry source, Entertainment Data, put the grosses for the box-office year ended Sunday at about 3.8 percent ahead of 1991. And Daily Variety box office expert A. D. Murphy late last week was predicting the total would hit at least $4.9 billion by the time he closes out the year on Thursday. The official figures from the MPAA reflect those in Variety, but are not usually released until February.
Grosses are the amount of money generated at the box office. That money in turn is split by varying formulas between the film companies and theater owners.
The year's three top-grossing films were all sequels. In first place was Warner Bros.' "Batman Returns," with $162.8 million, followed by 20th Century Fox's "Home Alone 2: Lost in New York," with an estimated $146 million through Sunday. In third place was another Warner Bros. film, "Lethal Weapon 3," with $144.7 million.
Meanwhile, "Aladdin," "A Few Good Men" and "Home Alone 2" earned a combined $50 million at the box office from New Year's Eve on Thursday to Sunday.
Although estimates for 1992's box-office gross show an improvement over 1991 set against a continuing national recession, several Wall Street analysts who follow the film industry were cautious in their assessments, noting that most of the increase was due to slightly higher costs for tickets. They said the actual number of people going to the movies in theaters has again fallen below 1 billion tickets sold -- making 1992 the third consecutive year of a downturn in the number of tickets sold, and perhaps the worst year since 1976.
Lisbeth Barron, vice president of research in New York for the investment firm of S. G. Warburg & Co., called the year about even with its predecessors. "There was fairly flat attendance . . . but it's notable that, given the recession, the business holds up extremely well."
A host of movies broke $100 million during the 12 months, including the Walt Disney Co.'s "Sister Act" and "Aladdin," Paramount Pictures' "Wayne's' World," TriStar Pictures' "Basic Instinct," and Columbia Pictures' "A League of Their Own."
In the $70 million to $90 million range were such titles as Disney's "The Hand That Rocks the Cradle"; Paramount's "Patriot Games" and "Boomerang"; Columbia's "Bram Stoker's Dracula"; Warners Bros.' "Under Siege," "Unforgiven" and "The Bodyguard"; and Fox's "White Men Can't Jump" and "The Last of the Mohicans."
By and large, 1992 was a "stable year for the film business," said Sony Pictures Entertainment Chairman Peter Guber.
Mr. Guber and other executives and analysts interviewed as the year wound down said the film industry these days is looking beyond the domestic box office and its year-to-year statistical fluctuations in measuring the health of the movie industry.
"It's anachronistic to measure movies only by domestic box office," Mr. Guber added. "Sure, it doesn't bode well if a film doesn't do well in the first few weeks. But it's not always the final part of the story."
The view is a recognition that the market for Hollywood movies does not begin and end with the U.S. and Canadian theatrical grosses -- the films generate another $5 billion in grosses in other countries, and approximately $11 billion more from videocassettes and television sources. In addition, they often spearhead a variety of toys, fashion items and other products.
"It was a good, solid year, if not spectacular," said Richard Cook, the president of Walt Disney Co.'s Buena Vista Distribution arm. "The last quarter has been so positive, hopefully it will carry over into the first quarter of 1993."
Harold Vogel, film industry analyst at Merrill Lynch & Co. in New York, said, "The year wasn't all that impressive. . . . But this has been a somewhat more profitable year for the studios. We saw in '91 that (production) costs were quite excessive. In '92, the spending patterns were curbed."
According to Ms. Barron, indications are that Disney may end up the most profitable of the studios for the year, despite poor results from "Medicine Man" and the costly flop "Newsies." "Clearly, Warner Bros. had a good year, too," added Ms. Barron, noting its five major hit films in 1992, but saying Spike Lee's "Malcolm X," which cost $35 million and has grossed $40 million so far, is a disappointment.
Universal Pictures had strong results from "Fried Green Tomatoes," which, although released in 1991, earned the bulk of its $82 million gross in 1992. Initially, Universal's release of the $62 million Tom Cruise-Nicole Kidman period drama "Far and Away," directed by Ron Howard, appeared disappointing. But the film eventually brought in $58 million in this country and has done respectable business abroad.
Despite "Home Alone 2" and "Last of the Mohicans," 20th Century Fox Film Corp. has had better years, analysts agreed. Its chairman, Joe Roth, who can take credit for the hits, nevertheless departed to go into independent production at Disney. Fox's other two holiday films are "Hoffa," starring Jack Nicholson, which is foundering at the box office, and "Toys," with Robin Williams, a major disappointment.