Message pic delivers $24 mil

New Line’s controversial healthcare drama “John Q.” took the moviegoing public hostage over the long Presidents’ Day weekend with a frame-record $24.1 million in estimated box office.

Paramount’s Britney Spears starrer “Crossroads” bowed at No. 2 with an estimated $17 million, and Disney tooner “Return to Neverland” debuted in third place with $16.1 million.

MGM’s Bruce Willis starrer “Hart’s War” opened in seventh place with $9 million, and Fox Searchlight laffer “Super Troopers” unspooled ninth to arrest $7.3 million.

Two soph-sesh players were Nos. 4 and 5 on the frame, as Universal youth laffer “Big Fat Liar” fell 25% to gross $11.9 million, and Warners Bros.’ Arnold Schwarzenegger starrer “Collateral Damage” tumbled 43% to $9.9 million.

Modest “Hart’s War” perf follows by one week the sour opening for Lion’s “Rollerball.” Action remake fell 56% to an estimated $4.6 million in its soph sesh, with a $15.4 million cume through 11 days.

Several best-pic nominees marked big B.O. bounces in the busy B.O. frame — the first weekend since Oscar noms were dished.

Sesh repped a Prexys Day weekend record, even though several distribs cited disappointment with Sunday tallies amid marketplace competish from Winter Olympics telecasts.

Higher than last year

Industrywide, the roughly $161 million in total grosses was 10% above last year’s then-record mark, according to data from B.O. tracker ACNielsen EDI.

Year-to-date, 2002 is roughly flat with the same period of last year at $1.11 billion.

Universal/Imagine’s best pic nominee “A Beautiful Mind” was sixth on the weekend with $9.7 million in estimated four-day B.O. Perf featured a 29% Friday-through-Sunday improvement vs. the same period of the previous frame.

New Line’s best pic nominee “Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring” was out of the top 10 but still rung up $6 million over the long sesh, including a 67% three-day uptick.

Miramax’s “In the Bedroom,” another best pic nominee, added 265 theaters for a total 1,002, as family drama tucked away $3.2 million over four-days.

‘Gosford’ gains theater

USA Films’ Robert Altman-helmed “Gosford Park,” yet another best pic hopeful, added one theater at 837 and grossed $2.9 million.

Twentieth Century Fox’s quirky musical “Moulin Rouge” previously completed a $57.1 million domestic run and thus was unable to exploit its best pic nom. But execs cited big spikes in homevid/DVD sales and rentals.

Lions Gate’s “Monster’s Ball” — which drew noms for original screenplay and topliner Halle Berry — added 131 theaters for a total 472 and grossed an estimated $3.3 million. Distrib was encouraged by solid per-venue average of $7,000 one week before skedded expansion to 600 locations.

Miramax’s Iris Murdoch biopic “Iris” — which drew thesp noms for Judi Dench, Jim Broadbent and Kate Winslet — returned over the weekend to gross $390,000 from 31 engagements, an impressive $12,580 per playdate. Pic previously saw a small Academy-consideration run.

‘Italian’ talks

Distrib’s Danish-language “Italian for Beginners” broadened seven theaters to 22 and grossed $220,000, a fluent $10,000 per venue.

Sony/Revolution Studios’ “Black Hawk Down,” which garnered several noms but not a best pic mention, slipped 22% in landing eighth with $7.4 million.

In a limited bow, Sony Pictures Classics’ “Last Orders” grossed an estimated $100,416 from seven L.A. and Gotham engagements, or a hearty average of $14,345 per playdate.

“John Q.” has been skewered by crix, but distrib said 92% of patrons rated the Washington starrer “excellent” or “very good” in exit polling. Half of its patrons were African-American, with auds 60% female.

‘Thrilled’ with ‘John’

“We’re thrilled,” New Line distrib prexy David Tuckerman said. “I think it’s partially the storyline and partially (the appeal of) Denzel.”

Yarn, which cost at least $50 million to film, involves father’s efforts to get a heart transplant for his young boy. Perf topped the previous frame-best opening of $21.9 million, set by “The Wedding Singer” in 1998.

For “Crossroads,” an incredible 85% of patrons were femme, with more than 80% under age 25, Par distrib topper Wayne Lewellen said.

Pic, produced for an estimated $12 million and heavily promoted over Par’s corporate cousin MTV, performed “on the high end of what we expected,” Lewellen said.

“Neverland” exceeded fondest Mouse House hopes, helped by broad family appeal, Disney distrib boss Chuck Viane said. “Peter Pan” spinoff cost an estimated $20 million to produce.

“Hart’s War,” which co-starred Colin Farrell (“Tigerland”), repped frame’s only disappointing opener, as Willis’ toplining appeal never overcame marketing challenge of gritty prisoner-of-war subject matter. However, Lion laid off a portion of pic’s reported $70 million budget through sales of some foreign rights.

Fox Searchlight acquired “Super Troopers” at the Sundance Film festival for about $3 million, so weekend perf “exceeded our goal,” unit prexy Steve Giulula said.

“Most of the pictures did find their audiences this weekend,” EDI exec veep Dan Marks observed.

Frame showed the best top-10 depth of any sesh since New Year’s, Marks noted.

Next weekend features two wide openers, U’s Kevin Costner starrer “Dragonfly” and Warners’ horror pic “The Queen of the Damned.”

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