Force of hobbit: $101 mil

'Two Towers' bow bigger than original 'Rings' fling

“Rings” played box office lord, while the competish ganged up on “Gangs.”

New Line’s sequel fantasy “Lord of the Rings: Two Towers” grossed an estimated $61.5 million atop the weekend B.O. for a boffo five-day bow of $101.5.

Warner Bros./Castle Rock’s Hugh Grant-Sandra Bullock romancer “Two Weeks Notice” was No. 2 on the weekend with an estimated $14.4 million debut, and Sony/Revolution soph sesher “Maid in Manhattan” rung up $11 million in third. Miramax’s historical epic “Gangs of New York,” which unspooled with less than half the engagements of “Rings,” finished fourth with $9.1 million.

Paramount’s kid toon “The Wild Thornberrys” had an even milder opening at $6.1 in sixth place, one rung below a $7.6 million second weekend for 20th Century Fox’s urban comedy “Drumline.”

But industryites believe both “Gangs” and “Thornberrys” could do better from Christmas onward, once adults are free to focus better on the former or to cart tots to the latter. “Gangs” — which like “Two Towers” fetched a recent Golden Globes best dramatic pic nom — adds 500 runs midweek.

Still, yet another high-profile wide release joins the B.O. fray on Wednesday: DreamWorks’ “Catch Me If You Can,” which like “Gangs” stars Leonardo DiCaprio.

Par’s “Star Trek: Nemesis” got shot down from B.O. orbit this weekend by the “Rings” phenom. Sci-fier — the 10th installment in distrib’s long-running franchise — dropped a whopping 76% in its soph sesh to $4.4 million in ninth place.

Industrywide, the weekend repped a 6% uptick from the same frame a year ago with $148 million in estimated total grosses, according to B.O. tracker Nielsen EDI.

Year-to-date, 2002 is 12% ahead of the same portion of last year at $8.66 billion.

The “Two Towers” bow is a record for December, besting the $47.2 million rung up a year ago over the first Friday-Sunday frame of franchise original “Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Rings.” The estimated five-day cume for “Towers” reps a 33% improvement over the first five days for “Fellowship,” which took in $75.1 million over the same span.

Execs are so stoked over sequel’s heady start that there’s already talk of pic’s approaching $1 billion in worldwide B.O.

“What we have set out to do is to become the No. 2 movie of all time after ‘Titanic,’ ” said Rolf Mittweg, New Line’s worldwide marketing & distrib prexy. “From here on, it’s all about longevity.”

To accomplish that goal, “Towers” would have to amass more than the $968 million in worldwide B.O. for “Harry Potter and the Sorceror’s Stone,” currently the second-best perf of all time. “Towers” also would have to continue to outpace grosses for “Fellowship,” which amassed $313.4 million in domestic coin over its entire run.

Warner Bros.’ “Stone” sequel “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets” so far has been unable to match the B.O. arc of its predecessor. But its $4.5 million weekend perf — good for a seventh-place tie with Disney sophsesher “The Hot Chick” — nevertheless gives “Chamber” an enviable cume of $228.9 million through six frames.

Warners distrib topper Dan Fellman said solid bow for “Two Weeks Notice” in a crowded marketplace makes him confident pic will perform much like previous Bullock starrer “Miss Congeniality.” December 2000 romancer opened at $13.8 million and went on to gross an impressive $106.8 million domestically.

Miramax execs said the solid $6,064 per-screen average for “Gangs” — second only to “Rings” among top-10 finishers — is reason for optimism. And patrons’ favorable comments in exit interviews could mean word-of-mouth will be strong on the pricey Martin Scorsese-helmed saga.

“We’re in for the long haul,” said Miramax’s chief operating officer Rick Sands. “This is not a quick two-week burn.”

Similarly, a Par spokeswoman expressed hope that the more modestly budgeted “Thornberrys” will quickly add to its early grosses.

“We think this is a good start for the movie,” she said.

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