'Adams' cures what ails U; 'Step' solid

With its $25.3 million projected Christmas weekend opening, “Patch Adams,” a movie about the healing power of laughter, brought smiles to the faces of Universal Pictures execs and helped cure the box office of a brief pre-holiday depression.

The debut — the best ever for a Christmas weekend and the third highest for a December opener — appeared to end an 18-month dry spell at the box office for Universal, a slump which resulted in the ouster of several top studio execs in recent months.

While “Patch” scored few points with critics, audience response was extremely favorable, as 97% of those surveyed rated the film either “excellent” or “very good,” and 85% said they would definitely recommend the picture to others, according to the studio. Auds skewed female by a ratio of 57-43, but were evenly split age-wise between those over and those under 30 years of age.

The pic marks the fourth commercial bullseye for helmer Tom Shadyac, whose only previous outings were the broad comedy hits “Ace Ventura: Pet Detective,” “The Nutty Professor” and “Liar, Liar.”

Auds love ‘Stepmom’

Also bowing to strong numbers was Sony’s No. 2-ranked “Stepmom.” With a studio-estimated $19.4 million in 2,358 houses, the three-hankie domestic drama racked up a healthy $8,227 average. That pushed Warner Bros. sophomore romantic comedy “You’ve Got Mail” into third place, with a $19.1 million estimate. (Rival studios predicted substantially lower grosses for both pictures.)

Still, with nearly $50 million already in the till, WB’s “Mail” should have no problem reaching $100 million in domestic ticket sales.

“Stepmom’s” opening was the second highest for a film starring Julia Roberts, after Sony’s own “My Best Friend’s Wedding.” which bowed to $21.7 million on June 6, 1997. The pic, which stars Susan Sarandon as a divorced mother stricken with cancer and Roberts as her ex-husband’s new flame, predictably attracted more women than men. Females outnumbred males by a ratio of three to two.

Surprisingly, however, younger audiences — those under 30 — outnumbered older auds, 55% to 45%, according to Sony Pictures Releasing president Jeff Blake. Studio execs are hoping “Stepmom” will follow in the footsteps of such recent Sony holiday blockbusters as “Jerry Maguire” and “As Good As It Gets.”

‘Prince’ also rules

The weekend also brought glad tidings to DreamWorks, whose “The Prince of Egypt” enjoyed a 5% increase to $15.3 million (after adding 100 screens). That brings the animated Bible pic’s 10-day cume to $40.2 million. Given the solid hold and a lack of family offerings on the horizon, “Egypt” now appears to have a shot at reaching the $100 million mark domestically.

Miramax/Dimenson’s sci-fi horror pic “The Faculty” ranked fifth in its class with a passing $11.8 million grade. While the opening was less than some had anticipated, with a large number of teens still available for moviegoing in the coming weeks, Robert Rodriguez’s $23 million-budgeted chiller has a chance to become a solid money maker for the Disney subsid.

In sixth place, Disney’s live action Christmas entry, “Mighty Joe Young” bowed to an OK $10.9 million.

BV general sales manager Chuck Viane was confident that based on the past performance of holiday openers, the pic would finish the 10-day holiday period with $35 million in the bank. “It’s not a blockbuster, but it will be a solid grossing family film.”

Despite strong critical support, Miramax’s midlevel release of Maya Angelou’s directorial debut “Down in the Delta” got off to a slow start. The pic opened to $1.6 million in 416 theaters, or $3,846 per screen.

On the other hand, the minimajor’s “Shakespeare in Love” grossed $2.5 million after widening its run from 19 to 295 stages. That gave the Gwyneth Paltrow starrer a muscular $8,475 average; cume is $3.4 million.

Fox Searchlight’s “Waking Ned Devine” also expanded nicely, winning nearly $1.7 million after moving into 259 theaters in the top 20 markets, for an average of $6,371. Its cume is $3.8 million.

The overall marketplace expanded sharply over the Christmas weekend, laying to rest concerns about its ability to absorb the onslaught of new films, including three star-driven adult-oriented pics.

Without a “Titanic” in the mix, few prognosticators expected the holiday period to come close to last year’s record haul of $144 million. But with an astounding seven pictures vying to top $10 million, the weekend’s total ticket sales should come within a few percentage points of the 1997 number.

‘Red Line’ makes mark

Among exclusives, Phoenix and 20th Century Fox’s “The Thin Red Line” hit the beachhead with $292,000 in five locations, or $58,400 per firefight. The powerful opening was no doubt aided by overwhelmingly positive critical response. But it remains to be seen whether Terrence Malick’s lengthy, lyrical look at a World War II infantry company can find victory with mainstream audiences.

BV’s “A Civil Action” grossed $68,000 in a single Oscar qualifying run each in New York and L.A., or $34,000 per courtroom.

Fine Line’s “Hurlyburly” opened to $161,000 in 16 sites in L.A., New York, Boston, Chicago, Washington D.C., Seattle and San Francisco. With a per screen average of $10,063, the pic is doing solid arthouse business in those sophisticated markets. “It’s a hipper alternative to gentler films like ‘Shakespeare in Love’ and ‘Waking Ned Devine,'” said Steven Friedlander, Fine Line’s distribution prexy.

Fine Line had less success with its launch of “The Theory of Flight.” The Kenneth Branagh-Helena Bonham Carter starrer barely got off the ground with $15,000 in five locations, or $2,500 per sortie.

Filed Under:

Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more