'Apes' tries to buck summer of soft sophs

Hollywood soon will find out if “Planet of the Apes” turns out to be a yet another one-trick pony.

Sure, 20th Century Fox’s $100 million update of the sci-fi classic set a nonholiday record last weekend in amassing a boffo $68.5 million in three-day box office. But it may prove just too hairy a feat for “Apes” to follow that perf with a second weekend atop the B.O. jungle gym.

In fact, no other pic has managed back-to-back No. 1 perfs for almost two months, with summer 2001 marking a constant turnover at the top of B.O. charts.

Because of soaring costs of marketing, the one-week wonder syndrome puts a squeeze on profit margins as studios find themselves ponying up more ad dollars to sustain limited shelf life.

On the other hand, the quicker coin is a welcome capital infusion for studio execs as they look to pay down production budgets.

“The studios are getting better at predicting what picture will open big, so you see fewer wannabes going up against the biggest films,” observed David Davis, a box office and media analyst with Houlihan, Lokey, Howard & Zukin in Los Angeles.

That’s spread more tentpole pics throughout the summer, with August offering an unprecedented number of big releases. “It seems that now there’s a different studio sticking its flag in the sand each weekend,” Davis mused.

Equally ominous for “Apes” is the 800-pound gorilla of a rival in its path this weekend — New Line’s highly anticipated “Rush Hour 2.”

The action comedy, which re-teams topliners Chris Tucker and Jackie Chan, is tracking just under the pre-release numbers for “Apes” and previous-weekend champ “Jurassic Park III.” That means “Apes” will need a better “hold” on opening grosses than any other top pic has managed of late.

Even big recent openers like “Jurassic III” and “The Fast and the Furious” showed soph-sesh drops of 50% or more. And each failed to repeat atop weekend B.O. rankings.

Size matters

Studio execs said part of the reason for bigger second-week drops this year is the frequency with which pics open in more than 3,000 theaters. Actual screen counts on many bows run as high as 5,000-6,000, thanks to many venues’ showing major releases on multiple screens in individual theaters.

This super-saturation approach — while ensuring big openings — burns off portions of B.O. that previously might been rung up in second or third frames, distribs believe.

“They open bigger and drop faster,” said Tom Borys, prexy of box office tracker ACNielsen EDI. “The traditionalists are concerned about this new trend, but the net is about the same.”

B.O. to date this summer totals $1.96 billion, a 5.4% uptick from last year, Borys said.

EDI doesn’t do mid-year surveys of ticket prices. But others say much of the season’s gains over 2000 likely are attributable to such boosts, so admissions may just slightly ahead of a year ago.

In any event, one has to stretch all the way back to this summer’s opening Memorial Day frame to find a pic that repeated atop the B.O. heap the weekend after opening at No. 1. “Pearl Harbor” managed the feat, and nothing else has done so since in seven subsequent frames.

As for the chances that “Apes” can pull off such a trick, Fox distrib prexy Bruce Snyder is hoping for the best but figures a greater than 40% drop is likely. And that probably wouldn’t be good enough to get the job done.

So, it’s considered a distant long-shot that “Apes” — or even “Rush Hour,” which knocks head with openers including “American Pie 2″ in its soph sesh — will manage to repeat as a weekend B.O. champ.

“We expect to be very successful with our picture this weekend and to be around for a long time,” New Line distrib prexy David Tuckerman said.

Playability will be helped by a PG-13 rating on “Rush Hour 2,” compared with the R rating on Universal’s “AP2.”

But “Pie 2″ is expected to open well north of the $18.7 million bow for 1999’s original “Pie.” And because the youth laffer faces relatively modest competish in its soph sesh, U pic could prove the season’s second repeat champ.

The current situation compares to a much more robust seasonal norm. Last summer saw three repeat weekend champs, and there were four each in summers 1998 and 1997.

In ’99, Disney blockbuster “The Sixth Sense” held sway over competish for five consecutive frames and DreamWorks’ “Saving Private Ryan” was No. 1 four straight seshes the previous summer.

Upcoming sked

This weekend, other wide openers include Disney’s G-rated “The Princess Diaries” and MGM’s period melodrama “Original Sin.” But it’s believed either pic would be highly fortunate to do even half the business of “Rush Hour 2,” and neither is considered a serious contender even to open at No. 2.

For the Mouse House pic, there’s a question of how many young moviegoers other than mere ankle-biters can be torn away from “Apes” and “JPIII.” And MGM will have to battle to get any males to accompany the femmes targeted by “Sin.”

“It’s going to be a tough weekend,” Lion marketing and distrib topper Bob Levin said. “So, we’re not looking to do some kind of outlandish (B.O.) number.”

Paramount’s “Rat Race” laffer won’t be in theaters this weekend. Distrib recently bounced its release to Aug. 17 to avoid going up against “Rush Hour 2.”

Meanwhile, the Aug. 17 frame has suddenly become chock full, though none of the five skedded wide openers yet appear likely to mount major break-out perfs.

In a limited release this weekend, Miramax will unspool its “Apocalypse Now Redux,” an extended director’s cut of the Vietnam War classic, in exclusive Gotham and L.A. engagements.

(Anthony D’Alessandro contributed to this report.)

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