Stakes high as summer B.O. blah

The summer’s first $100 million-plus “event picture,” 20th Century Fox’s “Speed 2,” got off to a slower- than-hoped-for $16.2 million launch over the weekend.

Not too long ago, a $16 million bow was nothing to sneeze at. But skyrocketing production and marketing costs, coupled with the shortened life expectancy of theatrical runs, has raised the bar for debut weekends.

The upshot: Unless “Speed 2” enjoys strong overseas receipts and potent video sales, the pic could find itself awash in red ink.

Fox’s competitors can take little pleasure in the film’s watered-down opening, however. Studio execs generally agree that box office successes are good for the entire industry, and duds can slow things down for everyone. Two weeks into June, the summer movie season has yet to take off.

Total ticket sales for the weekend came to just $65 million, a drop of 14% from this time last year. And business was off 37% from the comparable weekend in 1995, when “Batman Forever” opened to $52.8 million.

Distributors and exhibitors are hoping the summer will get a kick start in the coming weekend when “Batman & Robin” and “My Best Friend’s Wedding” take the stage.

While business was lackluster among the weekend’s would-be blockbusters, one specialized film managed to create a buzz. Orion’s “Ulee’s Gold” bowed to $89,563 in seven theaters for a promising $12,795 average.

Also encouraging was the picture’s 70% bump from Friday to Saturday, indicating favorable word of mouth. Sunday’s business was up 35% from Friday.

The film, directed by Victor Nunez (“Ruby in Paradise,” “Flash of Green”) has enjoyed overwhelmingly favorable reviews and a raft of newspaper and magazine coverage, mostly centering on star Peter Fonda.

Orion plans to roll “Gold” this weekend into 26 additional theaters in 17 markets, including Seattle, Vancouver, San Francisco and Boston this weekend, according to Jay Peckos, exec VP of theatrical distribution.

On June 27, Orion will broaden its L.A. and New York runs as well as moving into second-tier markets including Salt Lake City, Kansas City, Phoenix and Baltimore.

How has the picture managed to attract attention in a summer of $100 million extravaganzas?

“We’ve probably been rather fortunate in that we have what seems to be adult movie,” said Peckos. “The commercial and industry press has been on kick about the so-called ‘big noise’ movies.”

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