‘Rings’ wins by force of Hobbit

Tolkien tale tops at $37 mil; 'Eleven' beats 'Ali' to punch

The fabled denizens of Middle Earth battled to the top of the box office heap again this weekend.

New Line’s “Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring” led a strong B.O. field with an estimated $37.4 million in its soph sesh. Perf boosted PG-13 fantasy’s cume to $154.5 million, putting the first of a planned three “Rings” movies on track for at least $250 million in domestic B.O.

Warner Bros.’ family fantasy “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” will fly well past the magical $300 million mark. Cume reached $286.1 million after a 61% uptick to $11.5 million in its seventh weekend, good for sixth place on the sesh.

It remains to be seen whether “Rings” can do as well; distrib has been saying from the start pic will impress more as a B.O. marathoner than a sprinter.

The latest frame saw two wide openers — Sony’s “Ali” and Miramax’s “Kate & Leopold” — finish third and seventh, respectively, with $15.3 million and $9.5 million over the three-day weekend. Both pics bowed on Christmas.

Industrywide, the weekend’s $170 million in total grosses repped a 22% increase over the same three days last year, according to data from B.O. tracker ACNielsen EDI. Distribs penciled in particularly strong estimates for Sunday grosses over the most recent frame, because most students and many workers are off today.

In any event this weekend clearly showed more B.O. vigor than the pre-Christmas frame. A notable five pictures among the session’s top 10 marked bigger grosses than in that previous sesh. hose included the weekend’s second-ranked “Ocean’s Eleven.” Warner’s ensemble laffer was up 18% with an estimated $17.4 million in the frame.

Elsewhere, Tim Allen-starrer “Joe Somebody” from 20th Century Fox and urban laffer “How High” from Universal fell from the top 10 in their soph seshes. “Joe” grossed an estimated $5.6 million, “High” $5.2 million.

Fox execs were scratching their heads at the failure of “Joe” to corner a share of the family market. But it may be notable that Disney/Pixar tooner “Monsters, Inc.” managed a 71% uptick this weekend to $6.5 million in ninth place.

The failure of Warners/Castle Rocks’ “The Majestic” to generate Yuletide biz was another surprise, with Jim Carrey starrer sinking to No. 10 in its soph sesh with an estimated $5.6 million.

The disappointments come amid a crush of competish at the B.O. this holiday season. But at least one industry exec said public preferences remain the biggest arbiter of success.

“The public has the only sniffer that counts,” the insider mused.

Sony marketing and distrib topper Jeff Blake said the opening week for “Ali” was “a great start.” He predicted that kudos attention will help biopic sustain its momentum.

Michael Mann-helmed production carries an estimated negative cost of $105 million, split evenly between Sony and foreign-rights partner Initial Entertainment Group.

Hopes for action

Miramax marketing veep David Kaminow insisted the $17.1 million in B.O. that “Kate & Leopold” accumulated over its first six days was “obviously good.” But he acknowledged distrib hopes Meg Ryan-Hugh Jackman starrer can gain more momentum in subsequent weeks.

“There’s some tough competition our there right now, but we’re the only romantic comedy for the next few weeks,” Kaminow observed.

New Line marketing maven Russell Schwartz expressed satisfaction that “Rings,” an adaptation of the classic J.R.R. Tolkien novel, seemed to be playing well with ever-broader demos.

But Schwartz said pic’s mushrooming success wouldn’t goose merchandise revenue appreciably just yet. Sales of “Rings” figures and trinkets should pick up prior to the second of the planned film trilogy, he added.

“The merchandising wasn’t supposed to be a big thing with the original,” Schwartz noted. “We didn’t expect that to take off until sometime between the first and the second pictures. And it may happen more quickly now, with the success of the first ‘Rings.’ “

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