Great ape? Not so far

“King Kong” opened more like a tame monkey than a giant ape.

Falling well below studio hopes and industry expectations, Universal’s $200 million-plus tentpole grossed $9.7 million Wednesday. That’s about half the take of “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring,” four years ago on the same date, which U execs had pointed to as a benchmark.

U execs and the industry at large will wait anxiously for the weekend numbers. If “Kong” follows trends set by the “Rings” pics, also three-hour epics directed by Peter Jackson that opened Wednesday of the week before Christmas, it’s looking at a five-day gross of less than $50 million; overseas, “Kong” swung to a respectable $8 million on 4,569 playdates in 36 countries.

“Fellowship” had the benefit of some school kids already on vacation, however; virtually none are out yet this year. Ice storms in the Southeast also may have kept auds away.

But studio is hoping positive word of mouth, as well as kids getting out of school, will lead to a bow more along the lines of “Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl,” which opened to $13.5 million on a July 2003 Wednesday and went on to a $70.6 million five-day weekend and $305 million cume.

A somewhat weaker path would be that of “Armageddon,” which had the same gross as “Kong” its opening Wednesday in July 1998, then made $54.2 million over five days and $201 million total.

Those two pics both ran less than 2½ hours, however, and “Pirates” came to the market with significantly less hype.

“We’re very confident the film is going to grow and have a spectacular run,” declared U domestic distrib topper Nikki Rocco.

“Kong’s” only fresh competition is Fox’s “The Family Stone,” which opens on 2,465 playdates and comes with low expectations.

If business doesn’t pick up, “Kong” could find itself in a tight race over the three-day weekend with the second frame of Disney/Walden’s “The Chronicles of Narnia.” If that pic declines around 50% from its strong $65.6 million first weekend, it would gross in the low to mid 30s.

On the international side, the opening-day tally for “Kong” also fell below the “Lord of the Rings” pics, although it bowed in more than twice as many countries.

In 2001, “The Fellowship of the Ring” grossed $11.5 million internationally on its opening day in 13 territories; in 2002, “The Two Towers” racked up $15.6 million in 14 countries. In 2003 final installment “The Return of the King” grossed $23.5 million in 19 territories.

Like Rocco, U execs handling overseas markets looked forward to a bigger weekend for “Kong.”

“We’re very pleased about the first-day numbers and the exhibitor reactions,” said David Kosse, U’s president of international marketing and distribution. “It’s been getting strong word of mouth and stellar reviews everywhere, so we’re anticipating building into this weekend.”

Weakest market for “Kong” was Spain, where it made just $426,000 on 605 screens.

Other major markets with decent bows included France, where pic drew $1.2 million at 780 theaters, and Germany, where it took $664,000 on 739 plays.

The film did better in some smaller markets. It set the record for biggest opening day ever in Malaysia, where it grossed $254,000 at 49 playdates, topping “Return of the King” by 24%.

In New Zealand — home to Jackson and site of the production — “Kong” had the biggest Wednesday ever, taking $297,000 at 73.

Three other markets set records for the best opening day for a Universal pic: Russia with $533,000 at 308, Denmark with $252,000 at 73 and the United Arab Emirates with $149,000 at 22.

Other strong results included the Philippines, where it made $250,000 on 104, and Thailand, where it took $287,000 at 77.

“Kong” opens in 19 more territories this weekend, including the U.K. on Thursday, Korea, Brazil and Mexico on Friday and Japan on Saturday.

Rival distribs have avoided opening against “Kong” on the foreign front. Competition will come in the 13 markets where BVI has opened “The Chronicles of Narnia,” which bowed with $42 million last weekend, and from Warner’s still-formidable “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire,” which has grossed more than $427 million internationally.

Domestically, Fox is aiming for just high single digits with “Family Stone.” With tracking leaning female, studio is hoping it will counterprogram well against “Kong,” which skews strongly toward males.

With “Narnia” and “Kong” in the market on a weekend when many moviegoers are traveling or shopping, Fox execs are hoping a decent bow and strong word of mouth will lead to solid post-Christmas playability.

Studio did well with a similar strategy on “Walk the Line,” which counterprogrammed well opening against “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire” and has since shown strong legs.

In limited release, U bows “The Producers” in Gotham, L.A., Miami, Toronto, San Francisco and Chicago, where it’s aiming primarily for existing fans of the Broadway tuner on which it’s based before going wide Christmas Day.

Sony Pictures Classics has already opened “The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada” on five screens in New York and L.A. for a weeklong kudos-qualifying run.

Focus expands “Brokeback Mountain,” which broke the per-screen record for 2005 last frame on five playdates, to 69 this weekend. Sony is taking “Memoirs of a Geisha,” which also had a spectacular bow in eight theaters last frame, to 52 for its second frame before going wide next week.

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