'Starship's' $22 mil tops Gramercy pic's $13 mil

Sony’s futuristic war movie, “Starship Troopers,” marched to box office victory over the weekend with a studio-estimated $22 million, the biggest opening since July.

But that impressive launch still left room for an astounding $13 million U.S. debut for Gramercy’s low-budget comedy “Bean.” The picture, already a huge hit overseas, is by far the highest opening ever for the Polygram specialized division.

Not invited to the box office party, however, was Warner Bros.’ “Mad City,” which bowed at No. 6, with a disastrous $4.7 million. The opening, the worst for a film starring John Travolta since 1995’s “White Man’s Burden,” ended a long string of hits for the highly paid actor.

Trimark’s critically acclaimed period drama “Eve’s Bayou” managed $3.3 million in 659 locations, for a sturdy $5,036 per theater.

In its maiden flight, Miramax’s Henry James adaptation “The Wings of the Dove” soared with $175,000 in seven exclusive runs in New York, Los Angeles and Toronto. The $25,000 per-theater average puts the opening on par with that of Miramax’s 1996 screen version of Jane Austen’s “Emma.” That film went on to gross $22.8 million.

Overall ticket sales were estimated at about $79 million for the frame, up 4% from a year ago at this time. Market leader Sony Pictures continued to dominate the field, accounting for about 40% of the weekend tally.

“Troopers,” whose attractive young cast and romantic subplot has prompted industry wags to nickname it “Melrose Space,” boasted the third-best opening weekend ever for TriStar.

The label’s all-time top two films were also big-budget sci-fi extravaganzas: “Terminator 2,” which bowed to $31.8 million in July 1991, and “Troopers” helmer Paul Verhoeven’s own “Total Recall,” which conjured up $25.5 million on June 1, 1990. Those pics finished with $204.8 million and $119.4 million respectively.

“Troopers,” which reportedly cost over $100 million to make, will need strong legs to catch up with “Total Recall.” The R-rated picture saw a 1% drop Saturday, which could be an indicator of fast fall-off, and the holiday period is jam-packed with product. Fox’s sci-fi sequel, “Alien Resurrection,” will offer direct competition when it blasts off Nov. 26.

Sony president Jeff Blake said Sunday he was confident that word of mouth and repeat business among the film’s core audience would continue to drive the picture. “The challenge,” he said, “will be to spread beyond young males.”

Meanwhile, “Bean” surprised even Gramercy execs by playing well in all four demographic quadrants. About 55% of the audience was under 25 years old, while 45% was 25 or older, according to Gramercy president Russell Schwartz.

And the adults in the audience weren’t just parents being dragged by their 8-year-olds, said Schwartz, as evidenced by the fact that both evening shows and matinees were well attended.

“Going in, we thought the film would appeal almost entirely to kids aged 6-15,” said Schwartz. “We learned we have a movie that can be marketed to all ages.”

The slapstick comedy, which has grossed over $130 million overseas, stars Rowan Atkinson as Mr. Bean, the amiable, if mischievous, goofball he created for the highly successful British TV series.

Gramercy’s biggest previous opening was also its first wide release, the 1993 African-American Western “Posse,” which bowed to $5.3 million. The distributor’s highest grosser overall was the 1994 romantic comedy “Four Weddings and a Funeral,” which topped out at $52.7 million. “Bean,” which cost under $20 million to make, appears to have a shot at surpassing “Four Weddings” domestically.

Trimark execs were pleased with the initial weekend of “Eve’s Bayou,” a period drama about a rich Creole family in Louisiana, which cost about $4 million to make. The picture performed well in theaters with predominantly African-American audiences — such as the Magic Johnson Theaters in Baldwin Hills, where it beat out “Starship Troopers” with a $28,000 gross for just Friday and Saturday — as well as in upscale theaters.

“The film clearly crossed over,” said Trimark senior VP of domestic theatrical distribution Roger Lewin. “We’re selling out at many theaters because exhibitors underestimated the number of seats we needed. Hopefully we’ll be able to increase the seat count this week.”

“Bayou,” the directorial debut of actress Kasi Lemmons, has already surpassed the total domestic cume of such similarly themed pictures as “To Sleep With Anger” and “Daughters of the Dust,” noted Ray Price, Trimark senior VP of distribution and marketing.

“Those films all hovered at about $1.5 million,” said Price. “We passed that at about 6 o’clock on Saturday.”

Before Trimark stepped up, said Price, a number of other distributors had passed on the project because of doubts about the commercial viability of a black arthouse picture. “They said it couldn’t be done. The thrilling thing is we’re alive and breathing.”

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