‘Mission’ controls B.O. with $23.1 mil

'Gate' swings second spot, 'Skip' nips third

Earth to Hollywood: You can still open huge with poor reviews.

Disney’s “Mission to Mars” proved that notion over the weekend, racking up $23.1 million despite critical hits and exit polls that were decidedly NASA: non-affirmative space attacks. Brian De Palma-helmed sci-fier scored the fourth-highest March bow ever and the No. 2 frame in 2000, behind last month’s launch of “Scream 3.”

On the opposite end of the critical spectrum, two pics with kudo mojo, “American Beauty” and “The Cider House Rules,” continued their tandem march toward an Oscar showdown. DreamWorks’ “Beauty” finished fifth, dipping 9% from last week, and Miramax’s “Cider House” added about 200 screens to wind up at No. 6.

Another Oscar contender, but not for best pic, “Boys Don’t Cry” spiked 9% for Fox Searchlight. Driven by two key noms, reality-based drama took in $480,000 from 185 sites, bringing its cume to $6.1 million.

‘Gate’ opens to No. 2

“Mission” collected 38% of the total gross of the top 10 pics, routing fellow debut “The Ninth Gate,” which put $6.7 million in Artisan’s coffers.

Hewing to their company’s edgy mandate, Artisan execs pointed out the Roman Polanski-directed thriller offered auds an R-rated alternative to “Mission’s” PG. Topliner Johnny Depp, it must be noted, isn’t known as a B.O. Midas.

Mouse House “Mission” control radioed the message that its pic delivered exactly the gross it expected.

“Even in the face of some not-so-nice reviews, the public voted their own way,” said distrib chief Chuck Viane.

Earlier this year, Viane had declared “Mission” would jump-start the summer. Nothing over the weekend dissuaded him from that view, even the fact that just 63% of exit poll respondents in 100 sites rated the pic “very good” or “excellent.” (On most films, studios seek at least 80% in the top two boxes.)

“There has been a malaise hanging over the business, with movies winning the weekend without even making it to $10 million,” Viane said. “We delivered a package of movie stars and visually stunning effects and people loved seeing it on the big screen.”

Anticipation for the pic, which stars Gary Sinise, Don Cheadle and Tim Robbins, was building not only among auds targeted by sizable marketing effort. Showbizzers also had long eyed the film, as it was one of two Mars pics that once appeared to be on a March collision course.

Talk of a face-off ended when Warner Bros. pushed “Red Planet” back, first to June and then to November, where it’s still slotted.

B.O. edges higher

While “Mission” may have put some auds in a summer mindset, it didn’t heat up the overall B.O. ACNielsen EDI estimates the total take at about $86 million, up just a tad from the $84.6 million recorded in the same frame in 1999.

While the B.O. chart offered few success stories, Warner Bros.’ “My Dog Skip” certainly was one, jumping 3% from last week’s expansion. The family pic, funded by FedEx Corp. founder Fred Smith’s Alcon Entertainment, fetched $6 million to finish third, exactly where it was a week ago.

WB’s “The Whole Nine Yards” finally surrendered the top spot, which it occupied for three straight weeks. Bruce Willis starrer slipped only 25% to grab $5.4 million, good for fourth place.

The bottom four pics on the chart — Destination’s “Drowning Mona,” Par’s “The Next Best Thing” and “Snow Day,” and USA’s “Pitch Black” — were all recent releases on the wane. Each dropped between 35% and 43% from a week ago.

After an anemic bow last weekend, Col’s “What Planet Are You From” dropped 50% to $1.5 mil on 2,248 screens.

Specialized arena saw nothing special. Paramount Classics bowed “Deterrence” on seven Gotham and L.A. screens. Pic managed just $25,000, or $3,571 per site.

Artisan added five runs for “Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai.” Helmed by Jim Jarmusch, pic played at 19 theaters in Gotham and Canada, declining 34%. Estimated gross in Week 2 was $110,000, or about $5,800 a print. On Friday the pic will enter the top 12 U.S. cities.

But “The Closer You Get” didn’t bring Searchlight any closer to B.O. glory, picking up $70,000 on 30 screens.

“Orphans,” the next in a winter-spring string of pics from The Shooting Gallery, opened with $38,335 in 19 theaters, for an average of $2,018.

USA Films’ “Condo Paintings” grossed an acrylic $2,869 in its one-screen Gotham bow.

‘Erin’ sneaks in

Universal ran sneaks of Julia Roberts starrer “Erin Brockovich” on 800 screens. Drama will bow Friday in 2,800 locations. Distrib chief Nikki Rocco reported feedback equaled that of past U pics “Notting Hill” and “Patch Adams.”

Sneaks were at about 93% capacity, with 98% of auds rating the pic either “very good” or “excellent.”

Next weekend, “Brockovich” will do battle with “Mission” and New Line debut “Final Destination.” If Roberts can extend her recent hit run, helmer Steven Soderbergh could finally breathe the rarefied air of B.O. success. And he won’t need a space suit.

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