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Holiday rally helps Hollywood salvage another profitable year

Hollywood finished 1998 with a flourish, capping a risk-filled year with a 9 percent rise in its all-important domestic box office to nearly $7-billion.

Three of the final batch of major films _ Stepmom, You've Got Mail and Patch Adams _ matched lofty expectations during the crucial holiday season. The year's last eight weeks saw enough success from three Disney films (The Waterboy, A Bug's Life and Enemy of the State) to outweigh Universal's double disaster from Meet Joe Black and Babe: Pig in the City.

"The holiday season hasn't been great, but it's been very good," said analyst Arthur B. Rockwell, a former studio executive.

"There were no runaway blockbusters, but there was a lot of good product drawing audiences on a continuing basis. It's become harder than ever to have a blockbuster, because the business is so competitive and the marketplace is far more crowded."

Cynics might argue that Titanic, which drew 75 percent of its $600-million total domestic gross during 1998, was the key factor in the year-to-year increase. But it accounted for only half the gain. Even though only one film, Disney's Armageddon, topped $200-million in box office receipts, 11 others grossed more than $100-million and eight more topped $75-million.

The average movie cost $53.4-million to produce and $22.2-million to market in 1997, the Motion Picture Association of America reported; experts say 1998 numbers are likely to be significantly higher.

During the Christmas weekend, the industry smashed the record for gross box office receipts in a three-day period with $148.3-million.

Seven films topped $10-million over the weekend and the year's last seven days were on track to become the highest-grossing week of all time.

Even Universal Studios, which had suffered through a hitless stretch of 20 films, found a winner as Patch Adams led the box office with a $25.3-million opening, followed by more than $20-million on the year's last four days.

Robert Bucksbaum, president of Reel Source Inc., projected a $160-million final gross once the final numbers are tallied.