‘Ninja,’ ‘Metro’ duke it out for B.O. title

By all accounts TriStar’s “Beverly Hills Ninja” and Buena Vista’s “Metro” were deadlocked Sunday in their quests for the King Day weekend B.O. crown. While the race was extremely close, most observers predicted “Metro” would assume the throne by a narrow margin once the ticket stubs were counted.

However, estimates by the two films’ respective distributors told a slightly different story: Sony Pictures projected its Chris Farley comedy, “Ninja,” would finish the Friday-Sunday period with $10 million, while Buena Vista offered a more conservative three-day prediction of $9.3 million for its Eddie Murphy action comedy, “Metro.”

At No. 3, BV’s Madonna starrer “Evita” once again was the wide-release per-screen ruler, dropping 14% to $7.4 million, after expanding from 704 to 923 palaces. That gave director Alan Parker’s adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s hit musical a $7,801 average. Cume after 26 days is $21.4 million.

Among other holiday season holdovers, Sony’s “Jerry Maguire” continued to play well, crossing the $100 million benchmark and Dimension’s “Scream” stayed at high volume, bringing its cume up to almost $60 million.

Meanwhile, a veteran film of a different sort, Fox’s 20-year-old “Star Wars,” looks set to generate big box office with a new generation, drawing more than 1,000 Sunday morning to buy advanced tickets for the film’s re-launch on Jan. 31.

Tops among the weekend’s expansions was Paramount’s “Mother,” up 74% to $2.5 million after widening its run from 159 theaters to 380. The Albert Brooks comedy came in 10th for the weekend, averaging $6,579 per playdate; cume is $4.9 million.

Miramax’s Woody Allen musical “Everyone Says I Love You” grossed an estimated $1.5 million after jumping from 4 to 268 screens. That gave the comedy an OK $5,597 average. Cume to date is $1.9 million.

Gramercy’s “The Portrait of a Lady” saw a less picturesque expansion, taking in just $1.2 million after widening from 7 to 570 venues. The Jane Campion adaptation of Henry James’ novel averaged a listless $2,105 per screen; cume is $1.7 million.

Fine Line’s “Shine” saw a 17% increase in ticket sales, to $1.4 million, after increasing its playdates by nearly 50%. Upping its run from 207 to 306 theaters, the Aussie feature averaged $4,571; cume is $10.2 million after a nearly two-month gradual release.

Miramax’s “Albino Alligator,” the directorial debut of actor Kevin Spacey, clocked an $81,000 opening on 12 screens for a sluggish $6,750 average.

“Beverly Hills Ninja” kicked its way into 2,112 pratfalls, giving the chopsocky sendup a $4,735 per screen average, according to Sony’s estimate. “Metro” crashed into 2,001 theaters for a $4,648 average, per Buena Vista’s projection.

Vote of confidence

Jeff Blake, Sony Pictures Releasing president, said he was confident that given its PG-13 rating, “Ninja” would prevail by the time the Martin Luther King weekend drew to a close Monday night. “Remember, on Monday, half the adults are out of work, but all of the kids are out of school,” Blake said.

However, other industry veterans predicted that Murphy’s drawing power among African-Americans would help “Metro” eke out a victory.

Whatever the final tally, “Ninja” was the weekend’s most profitable newcomer, since its production cost was roughly one-half that of “Metro,” according to Brad Krevoy, co-chairman of “Ninja” producer Motion Picture Corp. of America. “Metro” reportedly cost over $40 million to make, while “Ninja” came in at around $20 million, according to sources familiar with the projects.

Krevoy predicted “Beverly Hills Ninja” would eventually gross $40 million, considerably higher than Farley’s previous outings, including last year’s $32 million grosser “Black Sheep.”

Sony’s fourth-ranked “Jerry Maguire” collected an estimated $6.8 million, off just 3% from the previous week. In 2,286 situations, the Tom Cruise starrer averaged $2,975 per playdate. Cume after 38 days is $102.1 million; the romantic comedy crossed the $100 million mark Saturday, becoming the 14th 1996 release to do so.

Paramount’s “The Relic,” which topped last weekend’s chart, dropped to fifth place. Off 27% to $6.6 million, the Gale Anne Hurd-produced thriller averaged $3,102 on 2,128 screens. Cume after 10 days is $18.7 million.

Shock value

Meanwhile, Miramax/Dimension’s “Scream” continued to shock observers. Off just 15%, the Wes Craven-helmed horror pic grossed $6.3 million in 1,904 locations for a $3,309 average. Cume after a month in release is $58.1 million.

New Line’s “Michael” descended 28% to $6 million, dropping from third place to seventh. Inside 2,325 pearly gates, the John Travolta starrer averaged $2,581 per cloud. The Nora Ephron-helmed fantasy has cumed $71.5 million since its Christmas Day bow.

Columbia and Phoenix Pictures’ “The People vs. Larry Flynt” dropped 36% to $3.4 million in its second wide weekend. Exposing itself on 1,233 pages, the Milos Forman-helmed biopic averaged a flaccid $2,758 per playdate. Cume is $12.6 million.

Ninth place went to the New Line release “Jackie Chan’s First Strike” at $2.8 million, which tumbled 52% from its opening weekend. Cume is $10 million.

Meanwhile, anticipation apparently is building among die-hard “Star Wars” fans for 20th Century Fox’s “Special Edition” reissue of the groundbreaking trilogy.

In a scene reminiscent of the sci-fi adventure’s original 1977 release, 1,200 people were lined up outside of Tower Records in West Hollywood by 7 a.m. Sunday to buy advanced tickets to previews of all three films. The previews will be held on the Thursday night prior to each film’s opening day. The 2,400 regularly priced tickets available for the Mann’s Chinese Theater screenings had sold out by 1 p.m., according to Fox.

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