Whammo 1-day B.O. signals big weekend

This article was updated at 9:00 p.m.

And so the Christmas crush begins — even as the box office year concludes.

In the first thrust of a multipic showdown over the robust Yuletide sesh, New Line’s sequel fantasy “Lord of the Rings: Two Towers” grossed more than $26 million from a whopping 3,622 engagements over its first day in wide release Wednesday.

Pricey lit-adaptation — expected to soar north of $100 million by Sunday — will be joined in the box office battle by three other wide openers this weekend as 2002 ends in a dazzling flourish. Today’s openers include Miramax’s “Gangs of New York,” Martin Scorsese’s gritty epic depiction of 19th Century gang warfare in Gotham that’s toplined by Leonardo DiCaprio and Daniel Day-Lewis.

“Gangs” finally unspools in about 1,500 locations after a succession of postponements for various reasons including long-running post production. Pic, which should gross somewhere in the teen millions over its opening weekend, adds another 500 engagements at Christmas for a total of 2,000 or so runs.

Also bowing wide this weekend are Warner Bros./Castle Rock’s “Two Weeks Notice,” a Hugh Grant-Sandra Bullock romancer tagged for 2,755 engagements, and Paramount’s “The Wild Thornberrys,” the big-screen version of a Nickelodeon toon skein getting 3,012 playdates. 20th Century Fox’s “Antwone Fisher,” which staged three Gotham exclus Thursday, expands to 15 venues in a half-dozen today and broadens to almost 200 playdates at Christmas before hitting wide release on New Year’s Day.

Other notable exclus this sesh include Disney’s Edward Norton starrer “The 25th Hour,” which debuts today in Gotham and L.A., and DreamWorks’ “Catch Me If You Can ” — a highly anticipated Steven Spielberg-helmed drama starring DiCaprio and Tom Hanks — which opens wide on Christmas Day.

Taken together, the sundry titles rep an impressive group of holiday openers, even compared to an action packed 2001 Yuletide, industryites say.

“The titles should produce (even) more box office revenue than last year,” observed Dan Marks, exec veep at B.O. tracker Nielsen EDI. “The pictures would seem to have more impact this year.”

Last year, “Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Rings” topped the weekend before Christmas with $66.1 million, and Christmas openers included a $10.2 million holiday for “Ali” and a $2.6 million haul for “Kate & Leopold.”

As usual, several pics are staging platformed holiday rollouts, and others are bowing on days other than a Friday to distinguish their titles from the crush of competish. Even “Rings” employed such an approach with its Wednesday bow.

Franchise original “Fellowship of the Rings” was released on a Tuesday night last December and made $4 million plus another $14 million the following day, so marked against the $18 million perf the first-day grosses for “Two Towers” rep a 44% improvement.

Meanwhile, the prospect of grossing well above $100 mil over pic’s first five days begs a comparison with all-time opening champ “Spider-Man.”

Sony’s comix actioner rung up $114.8 million over an opening three-day weekend after a first day Friday gross of $39.4 million. “Spidey” grossed $135.8 over its first five days including the Monday and Tuesday following its May bow.

“We are pleased and astounded,” New Line distrib maven David Tuckerman said of the early “Two Towers” perf.

“We are absolutely thrilled and stunned,” said Rolf Mittweg, prexy of worldwide marketing and distribution.

Screen count upped

The latest “Rings” pic was helped in its opening day by a boosted screen count this time around, Mittweg noted.

“Two Towers” is playing on 6,633 total screens — thanks to two or more prints per theater on many runs — compared with 5,700 screens in 3,359 venues for “Fellowship.”

“Towers” also fetched almost $15.6 million in foreign coin from 14 countries bowing the pic day-and-date with domestic on Thursday, a 38% improvement in foreign B.O. of the first day for “Fellowship” internationally.

Whatever the ultimate domestic and foreign haul for “Two Towers,” it will be compared to the boffo $860 million worldwide run for “Fellowship.” But if such a high bar reps a daunting proposition, consider the prospect of bowing a big pic amid the blur of year-end titles.

“It’s turned into quite a horse race at the end of this year,” Fox Searchlight distrib prexy Steve Giulula mused.

But he noted his optimism that Denzel Washington starrer will find good early traction.

“We think we’re positioned in some terrific theaters as of Christmas,” Giulula said. “‘Antwone’ is a word-of-mouth film, and we believe we will have the ability to play into the New Year.”

Holdovers challenged

Meanwhile, this weekend’s action also sees a couple of notable continuing players hoping to parry competish from new titles.

Paramount’s “Star Trek: Nemesis” opened last weekend with a so-so $18.5 million, and “Two Towers” could signal extra woes for the latest installment in distrib’s long-running sci-fi franchise. Similarly, “Two Weeks Notice” could make a one week wonder out of Sony’s Jennifer Lopez-Ralph Fiennes romancer “Maid in Manhattan,” which topped last weekend’s B.O. chart with an $18.7 million bow.

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