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War’s swell for Mel

Par's Vietnam saga tops with $20 mil preem

Paramount’s Mel Gibson starrer “We Were Soldiers” captured the weekend box office with an estimated frame-record gross of $20.2 million.

Miramax’s young-skewing sex laffer “40 Days and 40 Nights” opened in second place with an estimated $12.5 million.

Industrywide, sesh’s $101 million in total estimated grosses was a 13% uptick from the same frame a year ago, according to data from B.O. tracker ACNielsen EDI.

As exhibs and distribs converge on Las Vegas for the annual ShoWest trade show, 2002 is almost 3% ahead of the same period of last year at $1.36 billion in total B.O. That’s roughly in line with recent yearly trending, in which price hikes have boosted grosses modestly amid flat admissions. Motion Picture Assn. of America boss Jack Valenti will provide official year-end data on admissions, ticket pricing and theater counts in a state-of-the-industry address at ShoWest Tuesday.

Meanwhile, New Line’s Denzel Washington starrer “John Q.” stayed healthy for a third frame with $8.4 million in third place. But Warner Bros./Village Roadshow’s vampire actioner “The Queen of the Damned” took a tumble in its soph sesh and finished sixth, falling 61% to $5.8 million.

Universal/Spyglass’ Kevin Costner starrer “Dragonfly” hovered in fourth place with $6.8 million, repping a modest 33% drop from its opening. Disney tooner “Return to Neverland” was fifth with $6.5 million.

New Line’s “Lord of Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring” moved back into the top 10 in its 10th frame after a two week absence, grossing an estimated $3.1 million. First in a planned series of three “Rings” book adaptations, fantasy now boasts boffo $287.4 million domestic cume.

Three pics tumbled from the top 10 this weekend including Warners” Arnold Schwarzenegger starrer “Collateral Damage,” a terrorist themed-actioner that grabbed $1.9 million to move cume to $37.6 million through four frames. Also MIA were MGM’s Bruce Willis starrer “Hart’s War,” grossing another $1.4 million for a total $17.8 million after three seshes, and Fox Searchlight’s laffer “Super Troopers,” arresting $2.1 million for a $15.7 million cume after four frames.

For Gibson, the “Soldiers” bow reps his eighth-best opening after 1989’s “Lethal Weapon 2” ($20.4 million) and 1997’s “Conspiracy Theory” ($19.3 million). Topliner’s personal best remains 1996’s “Ransom,’ which debuted at $34.2 million.

Par loaded a particularly powerful third-day estimate in its weekend maneuvers for “Soldiers,” because 73% of enlisted auds were over age 25 — a demo more likely to storm theaters on a Sunday. If estimate holds up, pic will best a previous frame record set by DreamWorks’ Julia Roberts-Brad Pitt starrer “The Mexican” over the first weekend of March last year.

“Soldiers,” a Vietnam War drama, reps the latest of several military pics to unspool since American went to war with the Taliban in Afghanistan. It’s perf was roughly in line with pre-release expectations.

Par distrib topper Wayne Lewellen said “Soldiers” — produced for more than $70 million — should march to a domestic run of $80 million-$100 million. He also cited strong grosses in smaller markets as reason for optimism.

“40 Days” auds were 60% female, with the heaviest concentration of patrons among the 17-34 age group.

“The hope is to solidify that group, and inch it up a little more in terms of age,” Miramax marketing veep David Kaminow said.

Pic was produced for an estimated $16.5 million — before topliner Josh Hartnett hit big. U.S. distrib will split both costs and grosses with foreign partners Universal and Studio Canal.

Partners also combined on last year’s “Bridget Jones’s Diary.” Pic producers are three-peating after “Bridget” and 1999’s “Notting Hill.”

‘Wedding’ bliss

In the weekend’s best per-venue perf, USA Films expanded laffer “Monsoon Wedding” from a pair of Gotham venues to 11 major-market theaters and gift-wrapped an estimated $203,312 — a generous $18,483 per location.

L.A.-exclusive engagement at newly revamped Regent Theater was particularly successful, USA distrib topper Jack Foley said. Now floating a $300,271 cume, Mira Nair-helmed “Monsoon” floods 10 additional markets Friday.

USA’s commercial crossover “Gosford Park” added 90 theaters for a total 915 to gross $1.8 million, or $1,976 per venue. Robert Altman-helmed laffer parked cume at $30.9 million.

Elsewhere in the specialty market, Miramax expanded Iris Murdoch biopic “Iris” by 79 engagements to a total 120 and grossed an estimated $575,000. Perf repped an average $4,800 per playdate and paged cume to $1.6 million.

Distrib also broadened Danish-language laffer “Italian for Beginners” 10 theaters to 66 and grossed $350,000. Fluent $5,300 per-venue average moved cume to $1.6 million.

And Palm’s “Scratch” added three more playdates for a total five in grossing an estimated $31,777, or $6,355 per engagement. Pic adds a pair of markets Friday.

Two wide releases are penciled in for Friday — DreamWorks’ update of the sci-fi classic “The Time Machine” and New Line’s urban actioner “All About the Benjamins.”

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