‘Waterboy’ makes splash

Sandler scores, 'Siege' 2nd, 'Oz' blahs

Buena Vista’s football comedy “The Waterboy” kicked off the holiday season with a stunning $39.1 million studio-estimated debut, scoring a nonsummer opening record and ensuring topliner Adam Sandler a spot on the roster of Hollywood’s first-string superstars.

Meanwhile, 20th Century Fox’s “The Siege” landed a distant second with $14.8 million and Warner Bros.’ wide-release reissue of “The Wizard of Oz” bowed to a so-so $5.5 million.

Despite “The Waterboy’s” extremely promising pre-opening tracking, the size of the debut caught most observers off guard. If Buena Vista’s projection holds, the picture would rank 11th on the list of all-time weekend grosses, and the opening would be the biggest ever outside of the May-July early summer period. The previous nonsummer record holder was Warner Bros.’ “Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls,” which launched to $37.8 million on Nov. 10, 1995.

Not surprisingly, the broad sports comedy’s audience was skewed toward younger males: About a third of those attending the PG-13 pic were between the ages of 12 and 17, while another third were between 18 and 25, according to exit polls. An additional 16% were between 26 and 35.

Males outnumbered females by a ratio of three to two, and families accounted for only about 15% of the audience.

The performance came as welcome news to Disney, which this fall has suffered costly misfires in “Beloved” and “Holy Man.” “The Waterboy” is Buena Vista’s biggest opening ever for a live-action film, topping the $36 million debut of this summer’s “Armageddon,” It’s the Mouse House’s second highest opener overall, exceeded only by animated blockbuster “The Lion King.”

“It’s a hell of a way to open the holiday season,” said Phil Barlow, BV’s president of distribution.

“The Waterboy” was expected to push the overall weekend tally above the $100 million mark for the first time since summer. North American ticket sales were on track to total around $102 million, nearly twice the previous weekend haul and up about 22% compared to one year earlier.

At a distant second place, 20th Century Fox’s “The Siege” opened to $14.7 million, according to studio estimates. In 2,541 locations the Denzel Washington-Annette Bening starrer averaged a solid $5,785 per situation.

The film, about an Arab terrorist attack on Gotham, which prompts the imposition of martial law on the city, appealed mainly to older men, according to Fox distribution topper Tom Sherak. Sixty percent of those attending were 25 or older, while roughly the same percentage were male.

The picture, which received mixed reviews, was targeted by anti-defamation groups for what they saw as stereotypical portrayals of Arabs.

Warner Bros.’ reissue of “The Wizard of Oz” opened in fourth place to an OK $5.5 million, according to the studio’s projections. Behind 1,879 curtains, the restored 1939 MGM tuner averaged $2,927 per site.

WB distribution prexy Barry Reardon was upbeat about the bow, expecting the picture to continue playing through November despite the competition it will face from a number of new, high-profile kidpics. “Besides,” said Reardon, “sometimes it’s not about dollars and cents. Sometimes you do these things because you love them.”

New Line’s “Living Out Loud,” which expanded from exclusive runs into 1,086 theaters, grossed $4.5 million, or $4,134 per screen. Represented by three films on the Top-10 chart this weekend, New Line hopes the Holly Hunter-Danny DeVito-Queen Latifah starrer will stay onscreen long enough to generate significant grosses.

Artisan’s “Belly” grossed an estimated $3.7 million over the three-day weekend, bringing the cume since its Wednesday opening to $5.1 million.

Some theater owners were reluctant to play the urban action drama film, fearing the potential for violence. Most notably, the Magic Johnson Theatres chain refused to book “Belly” into its three key urban complexes, citing safety concerns and condemning the picture’s violent depiction of African-Americans.

Among holdovers, New Line’s “Pleasantville” continues to show strong legs, dropping just 14% from the previous weekend. DreamWorks’ “Antz” was actually up 20% from the Halloween frame, when trick-or-treating tots and their families stayed away from the megaplex.

To no one’s surprise, the Sony-distributed “John Carpenter’s Vampires” took a stake to the heart in its second weekend, dropping 56% to $4 million. The Largo-financed negative pickup now appears likely to finish in the vicinity of $20 million.

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