Chan’s schtick clicks

New Line's 'Rush' sets September record

Moviegoers jammed New Line’s “Rush Hour” over the weekend, driving the Jackie Chan/Chris Tucker action comedy to a spectacular $31 million sendoff, according to studio estimates.

The Brett Ratner helmed buddy pic marked an opening weekend record for New Line — topping the $25.4 million 1990 launch of “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.” It also set an industrywide record for the highest September opening, far surpassing the $18.9 million debut of 1996 Paramount release “The First Wives Club.”

Opening at a distant second was Universal’s critically acclaimed domestic drama “One True Thing” with a studio-projected $6.6 million. Last weekend’s B.O. champ, Miramax’s “Rounders,” meanwhile, lost 43% of its winnings to finish fourth with $4.8 million.

Among limited openers, Artisan’s heroin-soaked “Permanent Midnight” scored big in urban arthouses but nodded off in suburban multiplexes. The Ben Stiller-starrer grossed a projected $250,000 in 55 shooting galleries for a lethargic $4,550 average.

Big weekend

Largely on the strength of “Rush Hour,” overall ticket sales for the three-day frame appeared on track to top $70 million. That’s a jump of nearly 40% from last year and an all-time record for September.

The magnitude of “Rush Hour’s” debut caught most observers — including New Line execs — by surprise. Expectations, both inside and outside the company, had generally ranged from the high-teens to the low-20s. Some prognosticators had questioned the films’ ability to play outside traditional urban action markets and cities with large Asian populations.

While final exit poll data were not yet available, anecdotal reports indicated the PG-13 rated film played broadly across age, gender, ethnic and geographic boundaries.

“You saw families with little kids, big kids and grandma and grandpa,” said Al Shapiro, New Line president of distribution.

The picture enjoyed a solid 34% increase Saturday over Friday, indicating its appeal was not limited to young viewers.

New Line clearly managed to position the film as a mainstream action comedy in the vein of “Lethal Weapon” or “48 Hours” rather than a hardcore martial arts actioner. The film far exceeded the best starring efforts of both Chan (“Rumble in the Bronx”; $9.6 mil) and Tucker (“Money Talks”; $10.6 mil), individually.

“We were trying to make one plus one equal three,” said Mitch Goldman, NL president of marketing and distribution. “Little did we know, one plus one could equal four.”

Goldman credited Shapiro and marketing prexy Cheryl Boone-Isaacs with helping the $34 million budgeted film far oustrip expectations.

$100 mil likely

While it is extremely difficult to predict a film’s final tally based on a single weekend, history would suggest “Rush Hour” will gross at least $100 million domestically. Only a handful of films have ever bowed to $30 million or more and failed to top $100 million.

The muscular opening, taken together with such recent surprise hits “Blade” and “The Wedding Singer,” marks a triumphant return by New Line to the kind of moderately priced genre-crossover pics on which it was built.

The recent victories help the company put behind it a dark two-year period during which New Line tried unsuccessfully to go head-to-head with the major studios by producing costly mainstream fare such as “Lost in Space,” “Last Man Standing” and “Long Kiss Goodnight.”

Streep pic strong

Universal’s “One True Thing” made its $6.6 million in 1,590 locations. The three-hanky drama, which focuses on the relationship between a cancer-stricken mother (Meryl Streep) and her daughter (Renee Zellweger) managed a sturdy $4,151 average.

Audience response to the Carl Franklin-helmed adaptation of Anna Quindlen novel was overwhelmingly positive, according to exit polls. Not surprisingly, females gave the weeper the highest marks with 95% ranking it “excellent” or “very good,” and 75% saying they would “definitely recommend” it to friends, according to U distribution president Nikki Rocco.

But men apparently also enjoyed the film: 93% of respondents as a whole marked the top two boxes.

The question now is whether that positive response will translate into future ticket sales.

Artisan’s “Permanent Midnight” opened Wednesday in two Gotham locations and then in 53 additional theaters around the country on Friday.

Urban appeal

Based on Jerry Stahl’s non-fiction account of his life as a heroin addicted sitcom writer, “Midnight” did strong business at New York’s Angelika ($30,000 in five days) and L.A.’s Sunset 5 ($18,000).

But despite the success of “There’s Something About Mary” Ben Stiller’s presence was not enough to attract suburban auds to the junkie saga.

Among limited holdovers, Trimark’s “Cube” dropped 20% to $45,800 despite widening its release from 16 to 23 runs. Per screen average for the futuristic thriller is a bleak $1,991.

Stratosphere’s debut release, “The Thief” is inching towards the $1 million mark after nearly 10 weeks in release. The Russian pic grossed $50,000 in 33 spots over the weekend bringing its total to $943,000.

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