Disasters Topple All Comers in Record Year at Box Office

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LOS ANGELES -- Aliens and tornadoes were Hollywood's heroes in 1996 as Independence Day and Twister conquered duds like The Cable Guy and Striptease to lead the film industry to a record $5.8 billion year.

Megahits were the key, with 12 films breaking the $100 million mark in North American ticket sales, industry observers said.

"The momentum created by these blockbusters set the pace for the year," said Paul Dergarabedian of Exhibitor Relations Co. Inc., which tracks movie receipts. The number of tickets sold also rose, reversing 1995's slight decline. "It's been a tremendous year for the industry, even with the Olympics biting into the late-summer box office," Dergarabedian said. "It's unprecedented to have this many films over $100 million already." Other movies opening late in the year could go on to join the $100 million club, making 1996 a record year for blockbusters. Right now, it shares the honor with 1994, but those dozen films include late- openers that year. This year's projected $5.8 billion take represents an 8 percent increase over last year. "This is the fifth consecutive year of improved box office," said A.D. Murphy, who watches the financial end of the picture business for The Hollywood Reporter trade paper. "The last short-term low was 1991." Industry history indicates a "stumble" is inevitable, but the old pattern of three years up, one down seems to have been broken, Murphy said. Attendance for 1996, based on a $4.40 average ticket price calculated by Exhibitor Relations, is projected to be 1.33 billion. In 1995, 1.25 billion tickets were sold, down from 1994's 1.29 billion. The average ticket was figured by including prices for children's admissions, discount theaters and bargain matinees. In most major cities, adult tickets are $6 or more for evening shows. Raking in the biggest pot, as of Dec. 23, was the alien-invasion drama Independence Day with $306.1 million -- making it the sixth- highest grossing film domestically of all time. …