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A Sly Fox Creeps Toward #1

Studio Report Card: It’s challenging Warner at the B.O. … and when it comes to revenues, its in front of all other studios

It may or may not beat out Warner Bros. for the No. 1 global market share position for this record-breaking year at the box office, but when it comes to revenues, Fox is finishing out 2009 stronger than any other studio.

Going into Christmas week, Fox touted $1.34 billion in domestic theatrical revenue (with Fox Searchlight accounting for $263 million of that figure) and about $2 billion in international ticket sales.

Both performances were already up over 2008 with two weekends to go.

Just two weeks ago, the studio didn’t even seem to be in contention to finish No. 1 globally this year in terms of ticket sales (Warner has already locked up the domestic race with over $2 billion in revenue).

In fact, global supremacy also seemed firmly in the hands of Warner, which on Monday announced a projected year-end worldwide box office total of $3.99 billion, an industry record.

With one more weekend left in 2009, and “Sherlock Holmes” in the marketplace, not to mention a still viable “Blind Side,” Warner appeared poised to finish atop a landmark box office tally that will come in above $10 billion domestically for the first time ever ($10.4 billion is the official year-end projection).

But thanks to “Avatar” and the “Alvin and the Chipmunks” sequel, Fox is closing in fast.

The two films combined for $124.5 million of a massive $259.9 million Christmas weekend box office — a record for a three-day weekend period.

With James Cameron’s 3D epic at $643 million globally through Tuesday — while experiencing only a 2 percent week-to-week drop in North America last weekend — Fox officials are predicting they’ll finish 2009 with $4.07 million in global revenue.

“I think we had some product at the beginning of the year that did decent business for us — “Taken,” for example, was a terrific surprise for us,” said a Fox official, agreeing to speak to TheWrap without attribution. (Fox Film co-chairmen/CEOs Jim Gianopulos and Tom Rothman were not available for interviews.)

“But once we got our feet under us with ‘Wolverine’ and ‘Ice Age,’ we really got on solid ground,” the studio official added.

Fox’s rise to the near top of this record-breaking global box-office has been somewhat stealth compared to Warner, which had obvious breakouts, including “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince,” “The Hangover” and “The Blind Side,” all of which should finish the year in the top 10 in terms of domestic b.o.

In fact, until “Avatar” came along (it now ranks seventh), Fox only had one film, “Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs,” rank in the top 10 in North America.

Looking closer, however, the hits were all over the place for the studio in 2009 — and none of the misses lost a huge amount of money.

Released in the fallow movie-going month of January, “Taken,” a Luc Besson-directed parental revenge fantasy starring Liam Neeson as a retired covert operative who ventures to Europe to save his abducted daughter, took in $226.8 million on a reported production budget of $25 million.

Franchise-wise, before the “Chipmunks” came back around, the third “Ice Age” installment grossed $883.7 million worldwide — and notably, $687.1 million internationally — on a relatively modest budget of $90 million. It’s the highest grossing animated film of all time.

“X-Men Origins: Wolverine” ($373 million) and “Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian” ($412.7 million) also kept their respective bloodlines alive on budgets of $150 million apiece.

Meanwhile, Fox Searchlight provided some wind drag towards the end of the year, with Hilary Swank biopic “Amelia” taking in just $14.2 million on a $40 million production budget, and Wes Anderson toon “The Fantastic Mr. Fox” doing $20.9 million on a similar production figure.

However, the division had already paid its rent at the beginning of the year, with Darren Aronofsky-directed Mickey Rourke comeback vehicle “The Wrestler” taking in $44.7 million on a $6 million investment, and Oscar Best Picture winner “Slumdog Millionaire” doing the bulk of its $141.3 million in North American business in January.

Misses also included Christopher Columbus’ “I Love You Beth Cooper” ($15.7 million in worldwide b.o.) and Diablo Cody’s Megan Fox showcase “Jennifer’s Body” ($18.8 million), but both films had budgets under $20 million.

The high revenue doesn’t seem to have been yielded at high cost, with parent company News Corp. in November reporting an 11 percent fiscal first-quarter profit gain, driven by a record $371 million quarterly profit for filmed entertainment. “Ice Age 3’s” huge global box-office performance was specifically credited, as were the DVD releases of “Taken,” “X-Men 4” and “Night at the Museum 2.”

Of course, like its competition also enjoying this record year, Fox faces a high bar in 2010 in terms of registering growth.

The slate is light in terms of the studio’s recent go-to franchises — “Ice Age,” “X-Men,” “Night at the Museum,” for example. But there are a number of remakes and reboots that could come up big.

Set for June, for example, “Marmaduke” will feature Owen Wilson voicing an iconic comics section-derived Great Dane, while Neeson and Bradley Cooper will star in a feature remake of 1980s TV series “The A-Team.”

In July, Fox will reboot “Predators,” with Robert Rodriguez penning the script and Adrian Brody and Laurence Fishburne casts in starring roles.

December will feature a remake of “Gulliver’s Travels” starring Jack Black and Emily Blunt. Fox will also take over the “Chronicles of Narnia” from Disney, releasing “Voyage of the Dawn Treader,” which, again, stars Neeson.

Oliver Stone’s latter-day follow-up to 1987’s “Wall Street” is also on the studio’s 2010 slate.

“We have a nice mix of known properties along with a whole host of star-driven films,” said a Fox official, also noting Tom Cruise comedy “Knight & Day” and Tony Scott-directed action film “Unstoppable” starring Denzel Washington and Chris Pine. “It’s going to be another sensational year.”