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B.O. litmus test

Trio of pics will gauge auds' appetite, tastes

This could be the weekend Hollywood learns if America’s in the mood to return to their movie theater — and what sort of fare they’re willing to accept.

Three pics boasting solid pre-release tracking along with other strengths head into wide release Friday. Warner Bros. bows “Hearts in Atlantis,” the Scott Hicks-helmed, William Goldman-penned adaptation of Stephen King short fiction; Paramount opens “Zoolander,” a heavily-promoted laffer seen playing well with younger demos; and 20th Century Fox unspools “Don’t Say A Word,” a taut suspenser toplined by Michael Douglas.

One big question: How important was the fact that movie marketers were without prominent ad platforms in the aftermath the terrorist attacks? Broadcast and cable webs stripped commercials from around-the-clock news programming for a week after the disasters.

Another caveat involves the possibility of additional news developments. The nation remains poised for the military action in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, D.C.

“We’ve felt that if pictures come along which pique consumer interest, moviegoers will head back to the theaters,” said Dan Marks, veep at box office tracker ACNielsen EDI. “But obviously, something enormously important like the U.S.’ attacking (Afghanistan) could dominate their interest.”

Meanwhile, it’s not clear if the recent box office slugglishness has been due merely to the absence of compelling titles or a lingering malaise stemming from news events. Distribs will be rooting more for the latter.

“This will be the first weekend where there is some real serious product going into the marketplace since the recent events,” Disney distrib topper Chuck Viane observed.

Content problems

Mouse House pulled its “Big Trouble” laffer from a skedded Sept. 21 bow over content concerns — key plot point involves a briefcase bomb — and a similar moves by other distribs left Fox’s weak Mariah Carey starrer as the only bowing pic last weekend.

This weekend’s openers are all considered much more substantial fare, though there is broad uncertainty over how specific demos will react to various kinds of movies. Public-relations concerns asides, some industry insiders suggest even violent actioners could do well with young auds, though none of this weekend’s openers are that kind of pic.

Castle Rock-produced “Hearts” — like CR’s “The Green Mile,” based on King’s dramatic fiction — captured boffo ratings at 500 sneaks last weekend. Some 93% of patrons rated Anthony Hopkins starrer “very good” or “excellent,” with auds skewing older and 53% female.

Warners distrib boss Dan Fellman said ratings are the best he’s seen, and even a rival distrib called marks “extraordinarily good.” Fellman immediately boosted a planned 1,200-theater release north of 1,700.

Still, it’s assumed “Hearts” will need time for word-of-mouth to spread, as pic’s awareness level among prospective moviegoers wasn’t great prior to the sneaks.

“We plan to expand further in the weeks that follow,” Fellman noted.

“Zoolander,” a co-production of Village Roadshow and Par-affiliate VH1 Films, has used thirtysomething helmer/topliner Ben Stiller to good effect in ubiquitous pre-release promos.

High hopes

Spawned by a Stiller skit on the VH1 Fashion Awards telecast, pic is expected to draw from a range of demos but likely will do best with younger auds. Ultimately, distrib is hoping prospective moviegoers will be seeking lighter fare as respite from the recent news events’ emotional aftermath.

“I think they’re looking to have a laugh — a little bit of a relief from the daily events,” Par vice chairman Rob Friedman said.

“Ben has been a real trooper in stepping up to promote his movie in a very difficult time,” Friedman added. “He’s very aware of everybody’s desire to try to get back to some sort of normalcy, and we’ve all tried as much as possible to get back some sense of business-of-usual under the current conditions.”

On the other hand, there could be some seat squirming over portions of pic’s content.

Stiller portrays a male model programmed to assassinate a Malayasian leader, a scheme discussed against a backdrop of the Manhattan skyline at one point. Views of the now-cratered World Trade Center towers were digital removed from a couple of scenes.

“Zoolander” bows in 2,507 theaters.

New Regency-production “Don’t Say a Word” — which Fox unspools in 2,801 venues — is tracking best with older auds, for whom topliner Douglas is still considered a solid marquee draw.

But studio execs have been concerned over a relatively low “awareness” score for pic in tracking data. The problem may be traceable to the inavailability of ad placements following the terrorist attacks, and a studio insider claims late-breaking data has improved.

It also will bear watching if cool critical reception undermines “Word” at the box office. Early mixed reviews lauded production sheen while citing insufficient emotional depth.

Further, it’s debatable whether auds — especially those skewing older — are ready for an intensely paced pic like “Word.”

“Intense may not be what people are looking for right now,” an industry insider said.

Early scenes establishing the New York locale for “Word” once showed a view of the WTC towers. But pic was re-edited after the terrorist attack to replace the shot.

In addition to getting the widest release among this weekend’s openers, “Word” reps frames priciest new pic at an estimated $50 million.

It’s believed “Hearts” was produced at a cost running into the low $30 millions. “Zoolander” carries an estimated $28 million negative cost.

Par’s gritty sandlot drama “Hardball” has won the B.O. pennant the last two weekends, and Miramax/Dimension creeper hit “The Others” has finished No. 4 and No. 2 in its sixth and seventh frames. The upcoming sesh will tell if pics have earned their rankings or merely rose in a theatrical vacuum.

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