Teen sequel could be summer's second repeat king

HOLLYWOOD — The summer box office has been famously dominated by pics soaring to No. 1 and then ceding the top spot the next frame, but that could change this weekend as “American Pie 2″ faces soph-sesh competish weakened by a so-called “tweener” malady and other woes.

Tweeners lack a specific genre hook or the proven appeal of a sequel, and marketing execs find it particularly tough to bow such pics in summer’s harshly crowded conditions. Of today’s three wide openers, “Captain Corelli’s Mandolin” from Universal and “Rat Race” from Paramount are hounded by tweener uncertainties, while “American Outlaws” from Warner Bros. could be arrested by other difficulties.

Meanwhile, “Pie 2″ bowed so big last weekend — at $45.1 million — that even a whopping 60% drop-off would leave pic dishing up $18 million in its soph sesh. A better hold than that could make the “Pie” sequel the first pic to repeat at No. 1 in consecutive frames in over two months, considering the competish.

“Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, ” a World War II romancer, plays sweetest with older femmes.

“And that’s a very tough audience,” U distrib topper Nikki Rocco noted. “They sit back and don’t go opening weekend.”

U believes pic can succeed only on long legs, so “Captain” marches out in just 1,594 locations in a summer when super-saturation releasing has been the sudden norm.

“Not every film needs to be in 3,000 playdates,” Rocco said. “We wanted to open as many markets as possible, but I didn’t want to saturate any one market. It’s not a film that requires 15 theaters in a market.”

Par similarly views its “Rat Race” laffer as a potential word-of-mouth film. Helmed by Jerry Zucker (“Airplane!”), pic’s 1,001 sneaks last Saturday were 60% full, with older-skewing auds evenly split between males and femmes.

“We’re expecting good things,” insisted Par distrib boss Wayne Lewellen. But as with “Captain,” those box office good things could be limited to the teen millions this weekend if the non-genre film falls between demo cracks.

Marketing of “Rat” has been trapped by an ensemble cast that runs the gamut of age demos. Over-emphasis on 40-plus thesps such as Whoopi Goldberg and John Cleese could turn off the Clearasil set, and hyping Seth Green, Breckin Meyer or Cuba Gooding Jr. to the Geratol crowd could prove equally unproductive.

As a straightahead western, “American Outlaws” suffers no tweener uncertainties. However, interest has been mostly among young males, a group of moviegoers still likely to split their B.O. votes among current players like “Rush Hour 2,” “Planet of the Apes” and “Jurassic Park 3.”

WB is taking heart in a late spike in interest among prospective moviegoers for the “Outlaws,” which stars Colin Farrell as Jesse James.

“The tracking has jumped dramatically,” Warners distrib topper Dan Fellman said. “Young males have definitely taken an interest in this movie.”

It’s worth noting that marketing movies that fall between the cracks of summer moviegoers’ oh-so-casual tastes is such a problem that even high-quality fare can be chopped to pieces in the seasonal blender.

There was a time was when buzz was high for “Mandolin.” Nut U’s hopes for the high-profile adaptation of Louis De Bernieres’ bestseller have gone a bit flat as it bows domestically following an off-key spring opening in the U.K.

Problems with the Brit bow were mostly due to skedding against “Bridget Jones’s Diary,” which was hugely popular Over There.

The experience seems to have lowered domestic expectations for “Captain,” despite a cast and production of awards-consideration caliber –unusual for a summer release. Pic reps helmer John Madden’s first outing since 1998 best-pic Oscar winner “Shakespeare in Love,” boasts Nicolas Cage and Penelope Cruz as topliners and thesps’ thesp John Hurt in a featured role, and was lensed by Oscar-winning cinematographer John Toll in an exotic Greek-isle locale.

But like “Bridget,” “Captain” is based on a book that was a bigger phenom in England than Stateside. In fact, U’s Brit-based Working Title unit that oversaw production, with foreign rights split between Miramax and U’s French cousin Canal Plus.

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