'Menace' prospects terrif, but not titanic

LucasFilm and 20th Century Fox’s “Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace” blasted off with a $61.8 million gross over the three-day weekend, bringing the cume to $102.7 million since its 12:01 a.m. debut Wednesday.

The five-day figure shattered the previous record of $92.7 million set by “The Lost World: Jurassic Park” in 1997, but the three-day gross fell far short of the $72.1 million record set by “The Lost World.”

As impressive as the opening was, however, it fell short of many industry predictions. That prompted speculation that less determined moviegoers may have been scared off by press reports of long lines and fans camping out in front of theaters in the weeks leading up to the opening. If that was indeed the case, those auds are likely to begin streaming into multiplexes as the hoopla dies down in coming weeks.

“Menace” should benefit from the fact that it faces little real competition for its core audience until June 11, when New Line’s highly anticipated sequel “Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me” makes the scene.

With the initial numbers in, calculators began clicking all over Hollywood as box office prognosticators tried to get an early read on where the sci-fi prequel may be headed over the long term.

According to one hypothesis, the four-day Memorial Day weekend should roughly equal the opening three-day frame, while midweek grosses should come in at about $35 million. That would mean “Menace” finishes its second weekend with $200 million in the cash box. Doubling the cume after its second weekend (a rough rule of thumb for pics with good legs) would give it a final gross in the vicinity of $400 million.

Other projections were less rosy. But virtually everyone agrees that predicting a film’s final gross based on a single weekend’s results is a highly speculative endeavor. For instance, “Lost World” stumped box office soothsayers when, despite its record-breaking opening, it finished its domestic run at $229.1 million. “Titanic” on the other hand, opened to $28.6 million before making its historic journey to $600.7 million in North American ticket sales.

With its unprecedented merchandising guarantees and potential video and ancillary revenues, “Menace” could easily earn filmmaker George Lucas well over a billion dollars. But most industry execs have focused on the $400 million mark as the benchmark that separates a mere megablockbuster from a full-fledged phenomenon.

Only “Titanic” has ever passed the $400 million mark in its initial run. So a $400 million cume would put “Menace” in a class by itself — but still not in the class with “Titanic.” A final cume of less than $400 million puts the film in the rarefied company of “E.T.,” “Star Wars,” “Jurassic Park,” “Forrest Gump,” “The Lion King” and “Independence Day,” all of which grossed over $300 million in their initial outings.

After its $28.5 million opening Wednesday (including midnight shows), “Menace” saw a sharp drop Thursday to $12.2 million. From there it picked up to $18.4 million on Friday; $24.2 million Saturday; and a projected $19.3 million Sunday.

While many critics lined up to take whacks at the sci-fi prequel, audience reaction was overwhelmingly favorable, according to exit polls. Ninety-four percent of those surveyed ranked the film either excellent or very good, while 84% said they would definitely recommend it to others.

Not surprisingly, audiences for the effects-driven action film were predominantly male, with men outnumbering women 59% to 41%. In family situations, fathers were slightly more likely to bring kids than mothers were (52% to 48%). Typically, mothers are far more likely to accompany tykes to family films.

“Menace’s” debut propelled overall weekend theatrical business to an estimated $106 million, the first time a three-day frame has topped the $100 million mark since the beginning of the year. Ticket sales were up about 50% from one week earlier, and up nearly 54% from the pre-Memorial Day frame last year. Compared to the first three days of last year’s Memorial Day weekend (which ran May 22-25) business was roughly flat.

The only new wide opener with the guts to go up against the “Menace” juggernaut was DreamWorks’ “The Love Letter,” which delivered $2.6 million in 769 post offices for an O.K. $3,381 average.

To no one’s surprise, “Menace” pushed Universal’s “The Mummy” into second place, after two weeks at No. 1. Still, the effects-driven horror remake managed a $13.1 million gross, down 47% from a week earlier. With $99.5 million in the crypt, the pic should cross the $100 million mark today.

While the box office universe clearly expanded to accommodate “Menace’s” presence, several films were apparently hurt by the gigantic debut. Warner Bros.’ “The Matrix,” now winding down its extremely successful run, dropped 41% as compared to just 23% a week earlier. Even the female-oriented “Never Been Kissed” was off 36%, as opposed to 17% a week ago.

Taking the biggest hit was Artisan’s martial arts actioner “Black Mask,” which tumbled 66% to $1.5 million. With a second weekend cume of $7.1 million, the Jet Li starrer should kick its way to about $9 million.

Rogue Pictures’ “Trippin’ ” dropped 47% to $1.4 million, bringing its 12-day total to $5.2 million. The $6 million budgeted pic appears on track to gross between $7 million and $8 million domestically.

Virtually unaffected by the “Star Wars” onslaught, however, was MGM’s “Tea With Mussolini,” which fell just 25% to $1.2 million, bringing its 10-day tally to $3.5 million. In 273 locations, the pic averaged a still spry $4,396 per site.

In the specialized arena, Fine Line’s Bernardo Bertolucci-helmed drama “Besieged” debuted to $160,000 on 36 screens in New York, Los Angeles and Toronto.

The pic’s unusual release pattern included not only the top urban arthouses, but some suburban houses that typically open weeks later. The pic, which Fine Line backed with costly full-page color ads in the Sunday entertainment sections of key newspapers, performed well in both types of situations.

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