Kids choose pic for midweek matinee

Warner Bros. has fired the first salvo in the holiday toon wars, bowing “Pokemon: The First Movie” to apparent record results on 2,901 screens.

Receipts were still being counted late Wednesday, but select matinee figures point to one of the best post-Labor Day single-day debuts for an animated pic. Studio execs, however, were reluctant to give an estimate for the day’s tally.

Through 4 p.m. West Coast time, totals stood at $16,526 at the AMC in West Covina, $13,798 at the AMC in Puente and $13,798 at the Cinemark 22 in Lancaster.

The Loews Levittown on New York’s Long Island reported $11,670 by 4 p.m. East Coast time, and theaters across the Midwest were around the $10,000 mark.

“I’ve never seen matinees like this,” said Dan Fellman, head of domestic distribution for Warner Bros. “It’s a phenomenon.”

The best Wednesday opening of a toon at this time of year is “Toy Story,” which racked up $4.8 million the day before Thanksgiving in 1995, according to ACNielsen EDI.

Disney is girding for the Nov. 19 launch of “Toy Story 2.” Miramax already has the toon “Princess Mononoke” in limited release. Sony ushers in the part-animated “Stuart Little” on Dec. 17.

Paramount’s “Rugrats” did $6.8 million in a Friday bow last year. That pic is an apt comparison for “Pokemon,” as it also made a movie out of a small-screen hit. Plus, it opened in a similar frame, Nov. 20.

If the matinee pace held through the evening, “Pokemon” could easily surpass “Toy Story” and “Rugrats.” But to put it in perspective, “Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace” raked in $28.5 in its Wednesday debut in May.

Though “Pokemon” already had heat, the Veterans Day holiday certainly aids grosses. According to ACNielsen EDI’s records, 56% of the nation’s kids in kindergarten through 12th grade have no school today.

The B.O. surge follows a phone frenzy last week. The Warner Bros. switchboard took about 70,000 calls a minute after a televised offer for free tickets to the “Pokemon” preem last Saturday. The flurry crashed the studio’s voice mail system.

Pokemon is short for “pocket monsters.” It began in 1996 as a Nintendo video game in Japan. In the game, players collect and train pet monsters including cuddly but powerful Pikachu, a chubby mouselike creature, and the pink furball Jigglypuff.

Then came toys, trading cards and other collectibles and a syndie TV series that debuted in the U.S. in 1998. It now airs on the WB net, an enticing bit of synergy for Time Warner.

Warner Bros. is giving away one trading card with each movie ticket. That bonus prompted bulk buying of up to 1,000 tickets at a time, the studio said Wednesday. School officials nationwide frowned on the pic’s midweek opening, having already battled to keep kids from obsessing over Pokemon toys and cards.

“Pokemon” will widen out to 3,043 screens on Friday.

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