'Blair' close behind; 'Deep' holds third

Paramount and Disney’s “Runaway Bride” eloped with a picture perfect $34.5 million, leading the North American box office to its biggest weekend ever.

Overall ticket sales for the frame were expected to soar as high as $155 million, toppling the three-day record of $147.8 million set last Christmas. The weekend was just the latest manifestation of a red-hot theatrical marketplace that has put the summer B.O. tally significantly ahead of last year.

The reteaming of “Pretty Woman” stars Julia Roberts and Richard Gere in a romantic comedy was widely expected to generate sparks at the box office, despite generally lukewarm reviews. But the strength of the debut surpassed many of the most optimistic predictions. Still, the star-driven $70 million pic’s opening was nearly eclipsed by the jaw-dropping $28.5 million expansion of Artisan’s micro-budgeted “The Blair Witch Project.”

While with 1,101 engagements “Blair Witch” made its presence felt mainly in larger urban markets, “Bride” did best in midsized cities in the U.S. heartland. The comedy turned in its strongest performances in places like Tuscon, Kansas City and Dallas, according to Paramount distribution president Wayne Lewellen.

In third place, Warner Bros. and Village Roadshow’s “Deep Blue Sea” tore into a better-than-expected $18.6 million in 2,854 labs for a $6,517 average. The Renny Harlin-helmed sharkfest has gobbled up $24.7 million since it opened Wednesday.

Divided about evenly between males and females, pic’s audience was well distributed among age and ethnic groups, according to WB distribution president Dan Fellman. Fellman noted that “Blue” saw the biggest Saturday bump among the top five films, increasing 25% over Friday.

Two holdovers also made significant contributions to theater circuit coffers over the weekend.

While DreamWorks’ “The Haunting” plummeted 55% from its boffo debut, it still scared up a solid $15.1 million. With a cume of $63.8 million, the Jan De Bont-helmed chiller now appears likely to finish its run with slightly more than $90 million.

Buena Vista’s “Inspector Gadget” saw a less precipitous 36% drop to $14 million, giving the kidpic a $47.7 million cume. The Matthew Broderick-Rupert Everett starrer looks on target to top out at about $85 million.

Meanwhile, New Line’s “Drop Dead Gorgeous” earned an unlovely $1.6 million in 1,207 contests, down 60% from its coming out party a week earlier. With a 10-day cume of $7.9 million, the $10 million beauty pageant satire should struggle to an $11 million finish.

The current crop of holdovers will face a wave of five newcomers Friday, when MGM’s “The Thomas Crown Affair,” Buena Vista’s “The Sixth Sense,” Warner Bros. “The Iron Giant,” Sony’s “Dick” and Universal’s “Mystery Man” elbow their way onscreen.

Among specialized releases, Sony Pictures Classics’ Sundance pickup “Twin Falls Idaho” nabbed $50,000 in six locations in New York and L.A., giving it a respectable $8,335 average.

In its second outing, Fine Line’s “Trick” picked up $92,000 in six spots, down just 22% from the previous weekend. That gave the gay-themed comedy an impressive $15,333 per screen average.

USA Films’ “Autumn Tale” grossed $111,000 after expanding from 19 to 22 locations. U.S. cume after four weekends is $361,000.

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