i>PIRATES RINGS UP $1 BILLION

Disney's treasure chest for Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest is expected to swell to more than $1 billion today (Thursday) as the film continues to dominate the overseas box office and manages to attract decent business domestically as well. Only two other films have preceded Pirates into the exclusive $1-billion club, Titanic, which accumulated $1.83 billion, and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, which grossed $1.13 billion. Pirates principally owes its box-office success to its drawing power in the U.K., where it has so far earned $94 million, and in Japan, where it has raked in $78 million. On Tuesday, its total overseas gross stood at $583 million and its domestic gross, at $414 million.

VIACOM SHARES TRY -- BUT FAIL -- TO RECOVER

Shares in Viacom, which had dropped 7.6 percent since Monday's announced ouster of CEO Tom Freston, appeared to be rebounding in early trading today (Thursday), then suddenly slumped back to its opening level at midday as published concerns by analysts about the effect of the firing continued to pour out. Today's (Thursday) Los Angeles Times published an article suggesting that Freston's removal could have a devastating effect on MTV, which Freston nurtured to become Viacom's primary source of profits. Others suggested that the firing could place Paramount chief Brad Grey in the untenable position of having to negotiate deals while a sword of Damocles hangs over his head. But today's New York Post published a quote from Rich Greenfield of Pali Research that concluded, "We can only hope that new management ... will provide us with a clear sense of what is wrong with Viacom now, what needs to be done and what, if any, strategic pieces Viacom is missing."

DIGITAL AGE TO USHER IN METROPOLITAN OPERA AT MOVIE THEATERS

Digital projection will soon make it possible for hundreds of movie theaters to present live performances of New York's Metropolitan Opera. The Met said Wednesday that it had signed a deal with National CineMedia, a company formed by the Regal, AMC and Cinemark theater chains, and with Canada's Cineplex and Europe's Odeon/UCI, for the distribution of six opera performances. National CineMedia was originally created to sell and distribute advertising to theaters equipped with digital projection systems. In a statement, Metropolitan Opera chief Peter Gelb said, "This is a unique opportunity to raise our profile and grow our audience. Opera will now enter the digital era." The series will launch on Dec. 30 with Julie Taymor's spectacular staging of Mozart's The Magic Flute, which premiered at the Met in 2004.

PASCAL REWARDED FOR SUCCESS AT SONY PICTURES

Sony Motion Picture Group Chairman Amy Pascal has been rewarded for steering the studio through another winning year by being signed to a new, more lucrative five-year contract and being named co-chairman of Sony Pictures Entertainment. The announcement was made by Michael Lynton, chairman and CEO of SPE. (The studio's announcement did not indicate whether Lynton's title will now be co-chairman and CEO.) "This richly deserved promotion reflects the reality of our partnership here at Sony Pictures," Lynton said. Sony Chairman Howard Stringer added, "There's a magic to their partnership that makes Sony Pictures the best studio in the business."

DIRECT-TO-VIDEO CARTOON IS NO. 1 ON DVD CHART

Underlining the importance of direct-to-video sequels of animated movies to the company's bottom line, Disney's Brother Bear 2, distributed by Buena Vista Home Entertainment, wound up as the top DVD seller last week. As noted by Home Media Retailing magazine, it's the second direct-to-video release by Disney to land in first place on the DVD sales charts, following Bambi 2 in February.

Brian B.