B.O. goes to ‘X’-tremes

$31 mil 'Files' takes hit on Sat.; 'Mulan' snares $23 mil

The box office caught fire on the first official weekend of summer as powerful openings by 20th Century Fox’s “The X-Files” and Buena Vista’s “Mulan” led the industry to its first $100 million-plus three-day frame in over six months.

“The X-Files,” the bigscreen version of Fox TV’s hit sci-fi series, racked up a studio-estimated $31 million in 2,626 government conspiracies for $11,805 average.

“Mulan” fought its way to a $23 million weekend, according to studio projections, making it the strongest opening for a Disney animated feature since “Toy Story” bowed to $29.2 million in November 1995.

Meanwhile, in limited release, Miramax’s “Hav Plenty” opened to a less-than-plentiful $1.1 million in 413 theaters, or $2,663 per site.

Holdovers saw generally moderate to heavy dropoffs, with last weekend’s “Six Days, Seven Nights” falling 36% to $10.5 million and “Can’t Hardly Wait” swooning 50% to $4 million.

“X-Files” got off to a terrific start Friday with ticket sales of well over $12 million, as fans of the enigmatic show invaded movie houses en masse, particularly in big cities.

“The grosses at some of the theaters were like telephone numbers,” said Tom Sherak, chairman of 20th Domestic Film Group, “We were getting a week’s worth of grosses in one day.”

But on Saturday, instead of increasing or holding steady, attendance dropped a whopping 18%, calling into question the film’s long-term health.

“We expected to play flat,” said Sherak. “I think this has to do with the huge fan following.”

Observers have long debated whether the feature version of “The X-Files,” which stars the series’ David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson, could attract a significant audience outside the show’s core fan base. The picture’s early trajectory suggests the answer might be no.

The unique nature of the film — rarely, if ever, has a movie based on a hit show opened while the series was still running — makes it difficult to appraise its overall prospects.

While only one non-sequel, “Bram Stoker’s Dracula,” ever has opened to more than $30 million and failed to top $100 million domestically, “The X-Files” appears to be behaving more like a sequel. For instance, it could end up mimicking the performance of Paramount’s 1996 film, “Star Trek: First Contact,” which bowed to $30.7 million and wound up with $92 million.

According to exit polls, “X-Files” audiences were evenly divided between males and females, with 60% of those in attendance being 25 or over. But surveys showed the demographic group which gave the film the highest ratings was young males followed by young females.

“We’re walking on air,” said BV distribution prexy Phil Barlow of “Mulan’s” estimated $23 million debut.

The opening represents only a 10% improvement over those of the studio’s two most recent animated features — “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” and “Hercules” opened to $21.5 and $21 million, respectively. Yet Barlow noted that in this case studio marketers had to overcome audiences’ unfamiliarity with the subject matter.

“Everyone’s heard of ‘Hercules,’ ‘Hunchback of Notre Dame,’ ‘Pocahontas’ and ‘Beauty and the Beast,'” he said. “This is about a centuries-old female Chinese warrior.”

For just that reason, some observers have questioned whether the film would skew heavily toward young girls. Yet based on anecdotal data from the studio’s college network, Barlow said, kids under 12 were evenly split between boys and girls over the weekend.

“The sense that the film is attracting only little girls is dissipating rapidly,” said Barlow, who expects the film to continue to do strong business. “We’re absolutely positive this is not going to be a quick burn movie,” said Barlow.

While the film may indeed outperform the roughly $100 million domestic cumes of both “Hercules” and “Hunchback,” it doesn’t appear likely to come close to the $141.6 million final tally of “Pocahontas.” “Mulan’s” opening was just 67% of “Pocahontas” $34.5 million June 1995 debut.

Overall ticket sales for the weekend are expected to total about $106 million, up 2% from the equivalent 1997 frame, when “Batman and Robin” and “My Best Friend’s Wedding” opened to $42.9 million and $21.7 million, respectively.

Similarly to last year, two films targeting virtually non-intersecting segments of the population were able to expand the summer audience to its upper reaches.