U's 'Notting Hill' counters with $28 mil

“Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace” soared deep into box office hyperspace over the Memorial Day weekend, grossing an estimated $64.8 million in four days and flying past the $200 million mark in a record-breaking 13 days.

But “Menace” wasn’t the only heavenly body in the holiday theatrical firmament. The starpower of Julia Roberts helped propel Universal’s “Notting Hill” to a dazzling $27.8 million bow, the biggest opening ever for a romantic comedy.

The pic, with its core audience of older females and couples, proved perfect counterprogramming to the young-male and family-driven “Star Wars” prequel.

“Notting Hill’s” auspicious debut put smiles on the faces of Universal execs who have emerged from a nearly two-year box office drought with back-to-back hits, following the success of “The Mummy.”

Despite direct competition for young viewers from “Star Wars,” “The Mummy” dropped a moderate 28% (percentage drops compare the Friday-Sunday portion of the holiday weekend with the previous three-day frame) to $12.7 million, bringing its cume to $117.1 million.

Largely on the strength of those three pics, overall ticket sales for the four-day weekend was on track to total $140 million, up about 4% from the holiday frame a year earlier. The tally fell short of a Memorial Day record, however. That honor still belongs to the May 23-26, 1997 weekend when the debut of “The Lost World: Jurassic Park,” pushed the total to a dino-sized $148 million.

‘Floor’ fizzles

Feeling left out of the Memorial Day festivities was Sony’s “The Thirteenth Floor.” The $18 million virtual reality thriller, produced by Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin’s Centropolis Entertainment, bowed to a disappointing $4.3 million in 1,815 locations.

After “Menace’s” spectacular opening, some industryites feared the sci-fi adventure would fade quickly, as did “Lost World” and “Godzilla” in 1997 and 1998, respectively. But judging by “Menace’s” modest 23% drop, the fourth installment of the space epic looks increasingly likely to top $400 million in its domestic run, despite the last minute onslaught of a hype-backlash, negative reviews and the disappointment of some die-hard “Star Wars” fans.

Mid-week numbers for “Menace” should improve in relation to weekend grosses as more school-aged kids start their summer vacations. And the pic faces little competition for moviegoers or shelf space until June 11, when New Line’s “Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me” opens.

Buena Vista’s R-rated thriller “Instinct,” which debuts Friday, appeals to a considerably older audience than the PG-rated “Menace.” When the studio offered sneak previews of the Anthony Hopkins-Cuba Gooding Jr. starrer on 1,100 screens Saturday, 85% of those in attendance audiences were over 25. Gender-wise, auds were split almost evenly.

At Saturday night screenings of “Notting Hill,” on the other hand, women outnumbered men 68%-32%, according to exit polls. Sixty-five percent of those surveyed were 30 years old or over.

Star power

A majority of respondents indicated Roberts was their main reason for attending, once again securing the actress’ position as Hollywood’s No. 1 female star — and one of just a handful who, given the right role, can guarantee a big opening weekend.

If the studio’s three-day estimate of $22.2 million holds, “Notting Hill” would be Roberts’ biggest opening ever, topping the $21.7 million three-day debut of Sony’s in 1997 hit “My Best Friends Wedding.” That film also paid off as a counterprogramming gamble, opening against Warner Bros.’ “Batman and Robin.”

The previous three-day romantic comedy opening record was $21.9 million for New Line’s 1998 Adam Sandler starrer, “The Wedding Singer.”

“Notting Hill’s” terrific opening also kicks off Universal’s relationship with Working Title Films, the British production unit whose films had previously been distributed by Polygram.

Universal continues to fine tune the remainder of its summer schedule, which consists of three additional comedies: “American Pie,” “Mystery Men” and “Bowfinger.”

Less than a week after it told exhibitors it had moved “Bowfinger’s” release to Aug. 27, the studio has shifted the date to Aug. 13. Studio distribution prexy Nikki Rocco said U hopes to complete special effects work on “Mystery Men” in time to open that film on July 30, a week ahead of its current slot.

Strong slate

Top 10 holdovers generally fared well over the holiday weekend: All had projected dropoffs of under 30%, with the exception of Fox Searchlight’s “William Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream,” which was down 39%.

But landing in 11th place for the weekend was DreamWorks’ sophomore “The Love Letter” which plummeted 60% to $1.3 million. With a 10-day cume of $5 million, the $10 million budgeted pic should struggle to a domestic gross of $8 million.

In the arthouse arena, Sony Pictures Classics’ “The Loss of Sexual Innocence” opened to a so-so $50,600 in five locations (four in L.A., one in Gotham). The Mike Figgis-helmed drama, which the specialized distribber launched with its typically frugal approach, averaged $10,120 in four days.

Meanwhile, Fine Line’s “Besieged” pulled in $155,000 in 44 locations in New York, L.A. and Toronto, or $3,523 per screen. The pic expands to 150-200 theaters in the top 25 markets on June 11.

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