D'Works 'Haunting' houses $33 mil; 'Blair' scares life into B.O.

DreamWorks big-budget horror pic “The Haunting” brought home a hair-raising $33 million in its initial weekend, far exceeding most expectations and leading a still-sizzling summer box office.

Director Jan De Bont’s critically panned follow-up to “Speed 2″ appealed mainly to younger auds, according to exit polls, with 55% of those in attendance 25 or younger. “It’s a good, old-fashioned PG-13-rated horror movie,” said DreamWorks distribution topper Jim Tharp.

Further underscoring the pic’s youthful core audience, “The Haunting” saw only a 2% bump Saturday from Friday.

The Liam Neeson-Catherine Zeta-Jones starrer opens at a time when the market is getting suddenly crowded with scary pics. “The Haunting” will face heavy competition for the Clearasil set starting Wednesday, when Warner Bros.’ sharkfest “Deep Blue Sea” debuts. Artisan’s “The Blair Witch Project” expands into about 1,000 screens Friday.

‘Gadget’ works fine

Second place went to Buena Vista’s freshman “Inspector Gadget,” which grabbed $22 million in 2,814 situations. The opening handily topped the $16.5 million bow of 1997’s “George of the Jungle,” BV’s previous big-screen adaptation of a TV cartoon. “George,” which became a surprise hit with teen auds, eventually hit $105.3 million.

Twelve to 17-year-olds made up 15% of “Gadget’s” audience, ” while 42% fell between the ages of 2 and 11. Those 18 and older, mostly parents accompanying kids, represented 43% of the crowd.

The weekend’s other wide release, New Line’s “Drop Dead Gorgeous” was no beauty. The $15 million gross-out comedy bowed to an estimated $4 million in 1,207 pageants, or $3,314 per contest.

Overall box office remained robust, with total ticket sales expected to approach $130 million, up 5% from about $124 million last year.

‘Witch’ welcomes coin

Amazingly, “Blair Witch” actually managed to improve on its hugely successful debut a week earlier. After adding four runs, the horror mockumentary jumped 30% to $2 million in 31 covens, for a whopping $65,516 average.

After 10 days in exclusives (plus two additional days at New York’s Angelika Film Center), the ultra low-budget Sundance pic has grossed roughly $5 million. On Friday, it expands into about 1,000 screens in the U.S. and Canada.

Some rival studio execs expressed surprise that Artisan hadn’t chosen to open in as many theaters as possible. But distribution topper Steve Rothenberg said the company hopes to maintain the pic’s event status on a national basis — complete with long lines and packed houses — by continuing to limit its availability.

If the expansion proves successful, as most observers believe it will, Artisan will add another 500-1000 screens on August. 6.

With only one exception, the previous weekend’s openers all saw significant drops in their sophomore frames.

‘Eyes’ drooping

Warner Bros.’ “Eyes Wide Shut,” which wore the B.O. crown in its opening week, slipped to fourth place. Off 54% to $9.9 million, the sexually charged drama appears on track to finish its run at about $70 million.

Fox’s “Lake Placid” sunk 50% to $5.5 million. With $21.3 million in the till so far, the crocodile thriller should top out at roughly $30 million. But given its estimated $35 million negative cost, “Placid” is likely to mean some red ink for the studio.

Sony’s “Muppets in Space” dropped 53% from its disappointing launch, collecting $2.3 million. After 12 days, the kidpic has banked just $11.9 million, and doesn’t appear likely to crack the $20 million mark domestically. That’s a significant decrease from the $34.3 million of 1996’s “Muppet Treasure Island,” the last feature outing from Kermit and Co.

With a reported production budget of $24 million, “Space” will have to sell a lot of videos just to break even.

On the other hand, Paramount and MTV’s “The Wood” figures to land solidly in the plus column for the studio. In its second weekend, the pic dropped 42% to $4.9 million in a modest 1,191 locations. With a 10-day cume of $16.4 million, “Wood” should top out at roughly $26 million.

Given its reported budget of $6 million, the African-American drama could add as much as $15 million to Paramount’s coffers once ancillary values are figured in.

‘Trick’ slick pic

“Trick,” Fine Line’s Sundance pick-up, bowed to a promising $123,000 in six locations in New York, San Francisco and L.A.

Fine Line distribution prexy Friedlander noted that the pic’s opening $20,500 per screen average topped those of previous gay-themed indie pics, including Orion’s “Jeffrey,” Trimark’s “Billy’s Hollywood Screen Kiss” and Fine Line’s own “Love! Valour! and Compassion!”

“It’s really one of the first gay films that’s not just about being gay,” said Friedlander. “It’s not about AIDS or repression. It’s a romantic comedy with a more universal appeal.”

The pic will expand into 10 additional markets on Aug. 6, according to Friedlander. On Aug. 20 it goes into 20 more markets, and on Sept. 10, it expands into more than 40 college markets.

Meanwhile, Miramax’s “My Life So Far” debuted to an estimated $50,000 in five locations in New York and L.A., or $10,000 per engagement. Paramount Classics’ “Cabaret Balkan” kicked off to an inauspicious $12,000 in two Gotham gigs.

Among specialized holdovers, Lions Gate’s “The Dinner Game” grossed $84,000 after expanding its run from six to nine screens in the third weekend of its U.S. run. The pic has cumed $212,000 in the U.S., while the total North American gross for the pic, which opened in Canada last year, is $1.4 million.

USA Films’ “Autumn Tale” grossed $97,000 after expanding into 19 theaters in four markets for a $5,105 per theater average. Cume to date is $195,649.

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