Totals show it's not always better to be on top

“Casino Royale” has passed a half billion dollars at the global B.O. But in eight weeks of release, it was never No. 1 domestically.

In contrast, “When a Stranger Calls” had a triumphant opening, bowing at No. 1 with $21 million. Its eventual cume: $48 million.

Numbers don’t lie. However, the real meaning of being No. 1 at the domestic B.O. can be a little fuzzy.

No. 1 offers bragging rights. Like an Ivy League diploma, a pic’s No. 1 bow can help its ancillary sales and boost its international profile, since overseas distribs and exhibs look closely at U.S. openings.

Studio execs lament the media’s focus on being No. 1, yet they are swift to trumpet the fact if their pic hits the spot. It’s good food for the corporate ego.

A strong bow is more important for some pics than others. Tentpoles are expected to win the weekend. So when “Poseidon” debuted at No. 2 this summer, the press declared it a dud.

“I think it’s all a matter of perception,” says Warner Bros.’ distribution honcho Dan Fellman. “The press has made a big deal of it. So it does give you a certain amount of press. Whether or not you can put a number on that is very difficult to do.”

Some argue “Poseidon” was ill-fated, even if it had debuted on top. But when the 2005 “Madagascar” bowed at No. 2, DreamWorks Animation stock dropped.

The pic went on to earn $193 million at the domestic B.O. and $533 million worldwide. Wall Street understands No. 1, but doesn’t understand that many films — like those targeted at kids and the over-40 crowd — have a long life and are usually not dependent on winning the opening weekend.

Originally, Variety was alone in carrying box office listings, but other media organizations ultimately joined the party.

However, TV news occasionally has seemed blind to box office nuances. On Sunday evening, virtually every local news program in the U.S. trumpets the top performer at the weekend’s B.O., and distribs even battle to make the top five cut so as to be billed on the newscasts’ graphics. However, the focus on a pic’s B.O. status can swing out of proportion.

For example, “Superman Returns” and “The Devil Wears Prada” both opened June 30; the Man of Steel topped the charts with $52.5 million.

However, the more-sensibly budgeted “Prada’s” surprise bow at No. 2 — with $27.5 million, in 1,218 fewer locations — went on to become a bigger story.

“Devil” went on to be a solid No. 1 abroad and wound up with a worldwide take of $317.3 million for Fox. Worldwide, the latest “Superman” flew to $391 million.

“Everyone had high expectations for ‘Superman,’ ” says Chris Aronson, Fox senior veep and general sales manager East. “But the story of that weekend became ‘Devil Wears Prada.’ Had ‘Prada’ opened to $8 million, it would’ve been buried as an afterthought.”

Mel Gibson’s “Apocalypto” followed its opening weekend splash with a precipitous drop. Other 2006 pics that bowed at No. 1 only to slide off the charts included TV-inspired “Miami Vice” and horror sequel “The Grudge 2.”

Some execs complain the press can even put a negative spin on being tops.

“You want to be No. 1 at the box office,” says one studio distribution vet. “How can it hurt you to be able to tout your film like that? But when you’re No. 1 three weeks in a row, the media’s like, ‘Yawn, there’s nothing new at the movies. You guys are boring me now.’ And they want something to topple your movie.”

In the case of this summer’s much-promoted “Snakes on a Plane,” No. 1 wasn’t nearly enough.

” ‘Snakes on a Plane’ was snake-bit at the box office,” said the Arizona Republic in its B.O. filing.

The Associated Press wrote in its Sunday B.O. report, “the high-flying thriller … technically debuted as the No. 1 movie, but with a modest $15.25 million opening weekend,” which was “nothing to hiss about.”

“Snakes” wound up as last year’s lowest-grossing No. 1, taking in just over $34 million.

As with “Casino,” Sony is seeing the benefit of being No. 2 with Will Smith vehicle “The Pursuit of Happyness,” a modestly budgeted feel good drama from Italo helmer Gabriele Muccino.

The pic won the frame with its Dec. 15 bow, but it’s remained at No. 2 ever since. Over the Jan. 12 weekend, it’s expected to pass $125 million.

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