Labor Day weekend poised to lift season's grosses

An all-time mark for summer box office will be reached this weekend — though admissions will fall short of a record — as a couple of openers with so-so prospects battle two pics returning for brief expansions over the season’s final frame. Also, Universal has emerged as the clear-cut winner for the season’s market-share crown.

Box office tracker ACNielsen EDI projects Labor Day grosses likely will lift summer B.O. to about $2.93 billion. That’s 10% higher than summer 2000 and 5% more than 1999′s record season tally.

On the other hand, ticket prices jumped 6% last year and are believed up a few percentage points already in 2001. So this summer won’t beat will admissions in ’99, when a of total 550 million tickets were sold to moviegoers between the Memorial Day and Labor Day weekends.

Using an EDI estimate that ticket prices average about $5.66 — compared with $5.39 in ’99 — the B.O. tracker estimates this summer’s admissions likely will top out at about 518 million through Labor Day, 6% under the record set two summers ago. There were roughly 492 million admissions last summer.

Meanwhile, U will take the season’s market-share laurels no matter what happens over the Labor Day sesh. Distrib leads Disney with $487.9 million vs. $381.3 million in total summer B.O. through the final August frame, or a top 17% in market share compared with slightly less than 14% for the Mouse.

U also leads year-to-date comparisons with $714.2 million in B.O. since Jan. 2, translating into a 13% market share.

Three of U’s four biggest summer perfs have come from sequels — “Jurassic Park III,” “American Pie 2″ and “The Mummy Returns.” Surprise blockbuster “The Fast and the Furious” followed “Park III” as distrib’s second-biggest hit of the season.

Laboring to the top

This weekend sees MGM’s United Artists specialty unit today unspool horror pic “Jeepers Creepers,” the first of several planned co-productions with Francis Ford Coppola’s American Zoetrope, in 2,944 theaters. And Lions Gate finally releases “O” — an “Othello” update whose release has been delayed since 1999 over concerns about its youth-violence content — in some 1,434 venues.

Bowing pics will do battle with Disney’s “Pearl Harbor,” as Mouse House expands its summer tentpole to a wide 1,036 theaters from a slim 116 venues last weekend. Mouse is also expanding family tooner “Atlantis: The Lost Empire” to 785 locations from only 125 last weekend.

“I’m very hopeful that we will be No. 1 this weekend,” MGM/UA marketing and distrib topper Bob Levin said of prospects for “Jeepers Creepers.” “The movie is tracking well, and (horror) movies tend to undertrack.”

Openers face relatively modest competish from pics entering their soph seshes.

Among last weekend’s five openers, only Miramax/Dimension’s “Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back” broke into double-digital millions with an $11 million bow. United Artists’ “Jeepers Creepers” should just exceed that mark over four days, but Lions Gates’ “O” will labor to do as well.

Lions Gate distrib prexy Tom Ortenberg said “O” has seen an improvement in its tracking recently. “We’re peaking at the right time.”

Tracking shows keenest interest among younger females “and to a lesser degree younger males,” he said.

Stringing ‘Pearl’

Disney’s “Pearl Harbor,” which bowed over the long Memorial Day sesh, has delivered this summer’s second-biggest perf after DreamWorks’ “Shrek.” “Harbor” grossed $195.5 million through Sunday.

Pic aims to steam past $200 million in domestic B.O., and — though it will probably only perform modestly,– “Harbor” soon could reach the magic mark. Mouse House distrib boss Chuck Viane predicted the World War II epic and “Atlantis” will do significant biz over the holiday-lengthened frame.

“There’s a certain softness in the bottom part of the market right now,” Viane noted.

The Labor Day weekend, despite its length, is hardly known for avid moviegoing. Last year, Miramax’s “Highlander: End Game” topped openers with a measly $6.2 million over four days.

(Anthony D’Alessandro contributed to this report.)

Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more