Pee-wee spies pull surprise

Third 'Kids' the B.O. charm as five pix top $21 mil

“Spy Kids 3D: Game Over” proved the power of Miramax/Dimension’s family franchise is anything but over with $32.5 million in weekend box office — the biggest bow yet in the action series.

Surprisingly strong start exploited good market positioning plus kids’ endless fascination with funny eyeglasses.

By contrast, Paramount’s pricey action sequel “Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life” appeared dead on arrival. Estimated weekend gross of just $21.8 million compared with the original’s June 2001 opening of $47.7 million.

Bowing lit adaptation “Seabiscuit” — distributed by Universal and backed by a Triple Crown of U, DreamWorks and Spyglass — finished fifth with $21.5 million. But with just 1,989 playdates compared with 3,000-plus for other top pics, “Seabiscuit” enjoyed the best per-venue gross among frame’s wide releases.

Distrib plans to add engagements next weekend.

“We’ve broken great from the gate, and now it’s all about getting to the finish line,” “Seabiscuit” helmer Gary Ross said.

Pirates buck trend

Pics in their second weekend of release continued a trend toward quick market fades, but Disney’s “Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl” again bucked that trend. Johnny Depp starrer grossed $22.4 million to grab second place over its third frame on a weekly decline of just 34%.

Among the second-week pics, Sony’s “Bad Boys II” fell 53% to $22 million in third place, U/Working Title’s “Johnny English” dropped 53% to $4.3 million in eighth place, and New Line’s “How to Deal” tumbled 61% to $2.3 million to plunge from the top 10.

Mouse House’s leggy fish tale “Finding Nemo” will surpass “The Lion King” today in industry record books as the best-grossing domestic run ever by a tooner.

Computer-animated laffer hit $312.7 million in cume this weekend with $4 million in ninth place. Traditionally animated “Lion King” grossed a total $312.9 million in its original 1994 run, though subsequent re-releasing ran its domestic gross to about $328 million.

This weekend’s five $20 million-plus grossers marked an industry first. And that helped produce a 2% improvement in industrywide performance compared with the same frame a year ago, at $155 million in total estimated box office.

“The sum was greater than (the impact) of any individual picture,” observed Dan Marks of B.O. tracker Nielsen EDI.

Industrywide grosses are up just .006% on the summer so far. Year-to-date, B.O. is off 2.4% from a comparable portion of last year.

Among specialty bows this weekend, Miramax’s dark comedy “Buffalo Soldiers” grossed an estimated $29,000 from a half-dozen L.A. and Gotham locations. Joaquin Phoenix starrer thus rung up an average $4,833 per site.

IFC Films’ laffer “Camp” debuted with three Gotham and L.A. exclus to gross an estimated $53,579, or an impressive $17,860 per engagement. “Camp” stakes out 10 more markets next weekend.

Lions Gate drama “Mondays in the Sun” opened in seven L.A. and Gotham locations and grossed an estimated $22,000, or $3,143 per run.

And Sony Classics drama “Masked and Anonymous” boosted $32,167 from four theaters in Gotham and L.A. for a sturdy $8,042 per venue. “Masked” unspooled in Gotham on Thursday, producing a four-day cume of $38,504.

Elsewhere in the specialty market, Newmarket drama “Whale Rider” added 48 theaters for a total 495 and grossed $1.1 million, or $2,225 per venue with a $9.6 million cume. “Whale” rides into 50 additional locations next weekend.

Paramount Classics drama “Northfork” added 27 runs for a total 41 and grossed $127,021, or an average $3,098 per site with a $362,843 cume. Polish brothers’ pic adds 30 venues Friday.

Miramax suspenser “Dirty Pretty Things” added three theaters for a total eight and grossed $92,000, or a solid $11,500 per venue with a $251,634 cume.

And Cavu drama “The Holy Land” added three runs for a total six to gross $30,077, or $5,012 per site with a $106,175 cume.

Two pics open wide next weekend: Universal’s sequel laffer “American Wedding” and Sony’s Jennifer Lopez-Ben Affleck romancer “Gigli.” Also, Miramax is set to re-release its quirky laffer “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind” with 1,000-plus playdates.

None of those is family oriented, enhancing sophomore prospects for “Spy Kids 3D.”

Hard to forecast

Franchise-record bow for the Robert Rodriguez-helmed pic so outperformed pre-release tracking as to demonstrate once again how tough it is to forecast the performance of family features. Original “Spy Kids” opened at $25.5 million in March 2001, and the first sequel launched with $16.7 million last August.

“There’s a surprise every summer that no one predicts,” Dimension topper Bob Weinstein observed. “This was it this summer.”

The first “Kids” sequel was at a disadvantage by following the release of 11 family pics last summer, Weinstein recalled. “Kids 3D” — preceded by just a half dozen such pics — greatly helped itself by attracting young teens to the franchise for the first time, he added.

Par distrib prexy Wayne Lewellen said the “Tomb Raider” sequel was hurt by its competition posting stronger grosses this weekend than had been expected.

Exit surveys on the Angelina Jolie starrer were unavailable. But Lewellen said it played “better than the first one” and did best with younger patrons.

U execs said exit surveys on “Seabiscuit” produced audience ratings among the best ever seen by the studio.

Some 97% of patrons gave the Tobey Maguire starrer ratings of either “excellent” or “very good,” and 88% said they would “definitely recommend” the pic. Middle American moviegoers rated the pic as highly as patrons on either coast, execs said.

“I don’t think I can recall seeing numbers this consistently high across the board,” U distrib maven Nikki Rocco said.

Running its race

Surveys stoked her belief that positive word of mouth will prompt a late-summer surge by “Seabiscuit” — mimicking the late-race instincts of the title racehorse.

“Seabiscuit,” which also stars Jeff Bridges, Chris Cooper and Elizabeth Banks, drew auds comprised 59% of femmes, with 79% of patrons aged 30 or older.

Fox Searchlight execs were also among those enjoying happy B.O. weekends, even though specialty distrib’s “28 Days” fell just outside of the top 10 in its fifth frame.

That’s because a move to add a new-twist ending — sporting an extra 4 1/2 minutes of running time — helped the horror/thriller post a modest 19% drop to $2.3 million. Danny Boyle-helmed pic, acquired by Searchlight for just $8 million, boosted cume to $37.3 million.

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