'War' debut best ever for Par, Cruise

“War of the Worlds” snatched up $21.3 million from 3,908 theaters on Wednesday, the biggest opening-day number for Paramount and star Tom Cruise. Pic, whose budget is officially listed at $135 million but believed to be higher, was co-financed by DreamWorks.

Still, the figure sits well in a summer season in which the record book hasn’t had to be rewritten all that often. Nine other movies have had bigger midweek bows, but all were sequels (i.e., “The Matrix Revolutions,” which bowed with $24.3 million) with the exception of “The Passion of the Christ” ($26.6 million).

Tops on the list is this summer’s “Star Wars: Episode III — Revenge of the Sith,” which made $50 million on its opening Thursday.

Also opening this weekend is 20th Century Fox’s “Rebound,” bouncing into 2,464 locations and hoping to pick up biz from people turned off by the frights of “War.”

Par vice chair Rob Friedman said the studio was pleased by the Wednesday result.

“We’re not a sequel, we’re not a comicbook, it’s not a fan-base property. We’re a literary adaptation of a century-old novel. So when you have the biggest Paramount and Tom Cruise opening in history, we couldn’t be more thrilled.”

For the studio, previous record was the $18.1 million opening Friday on 2001′s “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider.” Cruise’s biggest first day was the $12.5 million opening Wednesday on 2000′s “Mission: Impossible II.”

Growth patterns

In recent years, when big pictures bow on Wednesday, their first-day numbers are nearly at the same level as their Saturday grosses. But both of the “Mission: Impossible” pics, which also had six-day opening stretches, built through to the weekend, with Friday and Saturday grosses significantly higher than the midweek figures.

That pattern is encouraging for Par execs who see “Worlds” playing steadier than a franchise sequel.

“Frankly, I think it will play more like a normal film,” said distrib prexy Wayne Lewellen. “Instead of having a fanatical fan base, it’s not going to be so front-loaded.”

Pre-sales on “Worlds” were significantly lower than those for both “Sith” and “Batman Begins,” but, Lewellen said, “they didn’t correlate to the $20 million (first-day figure).”

Aud for Wednesday’s shows was relatively balanced, with 54% male and 52% under age 25.

Industry estimates now expect “Worlds” to take well over $100 million before Monday.

Meanwhile, at Fox, distrib chief Bruce Snyder said his hopes for “Rebound” remain modest. Strategy of going up against “Worlds” was meant as counterprogramming for the aud that might find the alien invasion pic too intense.

“We knew ‘War of the Worlds’ was dark and graphic, and we have something family friendly, light and frothy,” Snyder said. “It’s a long weekend, and there will be lots of families going to the movies. We thought we could thrive in this environment.”

Still, the Martin Lawrence laffer is just hoping to squeak by $10 million in the four-day frame.

Limited pix

New offerings in the limited arena include Wellspring’s “The Beat That My Heart Skipped,” which is starting off on five screens in Gotham and L.A.

Artistic License begins “Twist of Faith” on two screens, one each in Gotham and San Francisco.

Frame’s other bicoastal launch is Lions Gate’s “Undead,” which opens on two in Gotham and L.A.

Starting on solo Gotham screens are Zeitgeist’s “The World” and First Run and Icarus’ “A Decent Factory,” which bowed Wednesday.

Expanding this weekend are IFC’s “Me and You and Everyone We Know,” which moves up in its third week from five to 26 screens. Also bulking up is Warner Independent Pictures’ “March of the Penguins,” which adds 16 screens in its second week, for a total of 20.

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