Cruise spark sputters

“Mission: Impossible 3″ lit the fuse on the summer B.O. season but didn’t deliver much of a bang. Auds seemingly grew weary of Tom Cruise’s pervasive media presence, from his chair-hopping antics on the “Oprah” show to his ongoing advocacy for Scientology.

Paramount’s season-opening tentpole bowed to an estimated $48 million — below industry expectations and studio hopes. Notably, debut was almost $11 million below that of “Mission: Impossible 2,” which opened six years ago at 400 fewer playdates, and just $2.6 million above the original “Mission: Impossible,” which opened a decade ago at 1,000 fewer theaters.

Previous two “Impossible” films opened on Memorial Day weekend, however, giving them a boost for Sunday evening shows.

“MI3″ averaged $11,846 at an ultrawide 4,054 theaters.

Pic certainly didn’t suffer from competition.

Despite having earned positive reviews and posted good audience scores, U’s “United 93″ dropped 55% in its second frame, grossing $5.2 million. Pic took in $2,865 per play at 1,819 theaters in its second weekend. Cume is $20.1 million.

It turned out nobody gave a hoot about “Hoot,” as New Line and Walden’s kidlit adaptation opened to a dismal $3.4 million. Other wide debut, Freestyle Releasing’s “An American Haunting,” grossed a modest $6.4 million.

Overall weekend was up significantly from a year ago, but that’s because 2005’s frame was led by the weak $19.6 million opening of “Kingdom of Heaven.”

Par is now left hoping “MI3″ will show stronger legs than a typical tentpole in order to get the gross at least close to $200 million. Opening perf was just below that of another spy actioner, “Mr. & Mrs. Smith,” which bowed to $50.3 million last summer on its way to a cume of $186.3 million.

Demos for the Tom Cruise starrer were nearly identical demos to those of the last two “Impossible” pics, indicating an overall softening rather than one particular group losing interest in the franchise or its leading man.

“MI3″ auds were 56% male and, somewhat surprisingly for a big-budget actioner, skewed older, with 64% of ticket buyers over 25.

“You’re always trying to aim for a bigger number, but we have a lot of momentum going into next weekend,” said Par marketing, distribution and operations prexy Rob Moore. “We have to do a little work so that younger audiences know this is a franchise for them.”

Word of mouth should be good, as “MI3″ drew an A- CinemaScore and reviews were mostly positive. It also has the advantage of weak competition next weekend, as “Poseidon” is tracking poorly, but will face “The Da Vinci Code,” which should be one of the biggest hits of the year, in two weeks.

“Hoot,” which averaged just $1,127 at 3,018 theaters, set the inauspicious record of the lowest gross ever for a film on more than 3,000 plays. New Line and Walden are surely hoping to do better with another kidlit adaptation, “How to Eat Fried Worms,” set for August.

“An American Haunting” came in around soft industry expectations, with a per-play take of $3,825 at 1,668 locations.

Sony’s “RV” followed the strong holding pattern of many other family comedies this year, dropping only 32%. Robin Williams starrer grossed $11.1 million in second place, averaging $3,040 at 3,651 playdates. Cume stands at $31 million.

In limited release, Chinese action hit “The Promise” didn’t translate well in the U.S. Warner Independent opened it to a weak $271,000 at 213 playdates. Per-theater average was only $1,272.

Sony Pictures Classics opened “Art School Confidential” to a solid $142,157 on 12 plays, or $11,846 per. Looking to avoid the summer blockbusters, indie is taking the Terry Zwigoff-helmed satire wide to nearly 800 theaters next weekend.

ThinkFilm bowed San Fernando Valley Western “Down in the Valley” to a decent $26,310 at three theaters in Manhattan, giving it an average take of $8,770. Indie is opening the Edward Norton starrer next weekend in L.A., Boston and Washington, D.C.

First Look opened Australian drama “The Proposition” at three theaters in Gotham and L.A. and grossed a solid $33,000, or $11,000 per.

Fox Searchlight expanded Deepa Mehta’s “Water” from five locations to 36 and did a so-so $188,000, or $5,222 per play. Cume is $270,000. Indie will bump the pic up to about 60 theaters Friday.

Miramax expanded Brit comedy “Kinky Boots” by 23 plays to 63 but didn’t get much mileage, as it grossed only $166,000, or $2,629 per theater. Cume is $618,000.

Rialto’s “Army of Shadows” grossed $13,300 during its second week on one screen in Gotham, up 5% and bringing its cume to $39,800. Pic expands to two theaters each in L.A. and D.C. on Friday.

Total take for the frame was up 26% from a year ago, according to Nielsen EDI, pushing the 2006 box office haul up 6% from 2005.

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