Buena Vista's Willis thriller tops 'Blair' with $25 mil

In a surprise ending to rival the film’s twisty plot, Buena Vista’s supernatural thriller “The Sixth Sense” stunned prognosticators by snatching the weekend box office title from odds-on favorite “The Blair Witch Project.”

The Bruce Willis starrer opened to an August record $25.8 million, according to studio estimates, topping the $23.8 million bow of the “The Fugitive” six years earlier.

While “Sense” and “Blair” were running neck-and-neck Friday, “Sense” pulled ahead when its older-skewing audience showed up en masse Saturday night.

But if the newcomer deprived “Blair” distributor Artisan Entertainment of its first No. 1 film, the company had no real cause to complain. The ultra-low budget horror pic dropped just 16% from its wide debut a week earlier, to rack up $24.5 million. With $80.2 million in the cauldron already, the $1.2 million Sundance acquisition could cook up a total of $150 million in domestic ticket sales before its spill over audiences wears off.

Still hot

While the searing heat which gripped much of the nation last week eased off somewhat, the theatrical box office remained red hot. Overall ticket sales were expected to hit about $151 million, which would make it the second biggest three-day frame ever, behind the record $156.4 million set seven days earlier. Business was up about 32% from last year at this time when “Saving Private Ryan” topped the chart in its third weekend with $17.4 million.

While “Sixth Sense” scored with members of all age groups, adults 18-49 made the biggest impact, accounting for 73% of the pic’s audience, according to exit polls. Although the ghost story boasts its fair share of jolts and hair-raising apparitions, the teen horror crowd was sparsely represented. Teens made up only about 15% of the audience, while 60% of those in attendance were over 25.

The opening was a quantum leap commercially for director M. Night Shymamalan, whose previous indie outing, Miramax’s 1998 release “Wide Awake,” took in a total of $282,000 domestically.

Rivals were quick to attribute the pic’s potent opening to BV’s marketing approach, which included sneak previews and a persuasive TV and radio campaign. But distribution president Chuck Viane also noted the contribution of the sales force, which mobilized to get the film into 2,161 theaters despite the presence of two blockbuster holdovers and five new wide releases.

‘Bride’ bumped

Last week’s B.O. champ, Paramount’s “Runaway Bride,” had to settle for third place. The romantic comedy dropped 40% to a still lovely $21 million. With a cume of $74.1 million, the Julia Roberts-Richard Gere starrer now appears on track to top out at about $125 million.

“Bride” was probably hurt somewhat by the onscreen appearance of another winsome twosome: Pierce Brosnan and Renee Russo in MGM’s “The Thomas Crown Affair.” The glossy remake of the Norman Jewison’s 1968 Steve McQueen-Faye Dunaway starrer grossed a better-than-expected $14.6 million in 2,427 heists, or $6,016 per caper.

The pic hit at the heart of “Bride’s” core adult audience; 65% of attendees were 30 or over. Adult-oriented pics tend to have better staying power than ones geared towards teens, and with little competition for older auds in the coming weeks, “Crown” could end up doing better than its debut might indicate.

MGM president of worldwide theatrical distribution. Larry Gleason predicted the pic would cume between $60 million and $70 million domestically. He also noted that the film’s strongest per screen average was in Montreal, which could bode well for its international life. The pic begins its rollout into several European territories later this month.

‘Sea’ solid

In fifth place, Warner Bros.’ sophomore “Deep Blue Sea” swam off with $11 million, down 42% from the previous weekend. With $45.3 million in its belly, the Renny Harlin-helmed shark thriller looks likely to finish at about $80 million.

Among the weekend’s other wide releases, Universal’s “Mystery Men” debuted with an O.K. $10 million, to land at No. 6 in the crowded field.

Warner Bros.’ critically lauded animated feature “Iron Giant” managed only a pint-sized $5.7 million opening. In 2,179 situations the pic averaged $2,616. Sony and Phoenix Pictures Watergate-era satire “Dick” was resigned to a $2.2 million in 1,522 hearings or $1,445 per term.

Meanwhile, DreamWorks’ “The Haunting,” which plunged 59% to $6.3 million in its third weekend, is on track to cume about $90 million domestically. The film, which bowed to $33.4 million on July 23, will likely earn the dubious distinction of becoming the film with the biggest opening ever to gross less than $100 million domestically.

Only three previous pics have opened to more than $30 million and then failed to top the century mark: “Star Trek: First Contact,” “Bram Stoker’s Dracula” and “The X-Files.”

Among specialized releases, Paramount Classics’ “The Adventures of Sebastian Cole” opened to a scant $14,200 in seven locations, or $2,029 per site.

Fine Line’s Sundance pickup “Trick” grossed $182,000 roughly doubling its previous weekend’s take after expanding from six to 28 engagements.

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