‘Mail’ shows a prophet

Hanks-Ryan comedy delivers $18 mil, 'Egypt' is 2nd

The prospect of Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan once again falling in love proved more attractive than an animated retelling of Exodus, as Warner Bros.’ “You’ve Got Mail” prevailed over DreamWorks’ “The Prince of Egypt” during a generally lackluster pre-Christmas weekend.

“Mail” delivered $18.7 million on 2,691 computer screens, while “Prince” commanded $14.3 million in an epic 3,118 palaces, according to studio projections. (Estimates by rival studios put both grosses anywhere from $400,000 to $1 million lower.)

Among top holdovers, Buena Vista and Pixar’s “A Bug’s Life” remained aloft with a zippy $9.5 million, down just 16%, while last weekend’s top grosser, Paramount’s “Star Trek: Insurrection,” descended at warp speed, off 61% to $8.5 million.

Overall ticket sales were expected to reach about $75 million, down 24% from last year at this time when Paramount’s “Titanic” and MGM’s “Tomorrow Never Dies” racked up $28.6 million and $25.1 million respectively, pushing the total box office to nearly $99 million.

“‘You’ve Got Mail’ is a nice, light romantic comedy, which is just what you need for the holidays,” said Barry Reardon, WB distribution president. “We think it will be the No. 1 hit movie of the holidays.”

The debut compares favorably with that of Sony’s star-driven pre-Christmas romantic comedy “Jerry Maguire,” which bowed to $17.1 million Dec. 13, 1996, and eventually reached $154 million.

However, it remains to be seen if “Mail” has “Maguire’s” staying power. For one thing, “Mail” faces stiff competition for older auds from two high-profile Christmas Day openers: Universal’s “Patch Adams” and Sony’s “Stepmom.”

TriStar’s 1993 pic “Sleepless in Seattle,” another Nora Ephron-helmed Hanks-Ryan romantic comedy, bowed to $17.3 million on the way to $126.7 million. Only time will tell if “Mail” can hold its own, or if — given the two films’ similarities — it will perform more like a sequel, coming on strong and fading quickly.

Historical comparisons are harder to find for “The Prince of Egypt,” an animated film driven by adult moviegoers.

According to DreamWorks’ exit polls, 45% of auds were “non-family” — meaning adults without children. The picture’s Saturday to Friday bump of only 25% further underscored the predominance of older viewers. By comparison, “The Rugrats Movie” and “A Bug’s Life” both jumped by over 100% Saturday over Friday.

Empty seats

There were also anecdotal reports of theaters which were packed on Friday evening and virtually empty Saturday afternoon, exactly the opposite of what one would expect from an animated pic.

DreamWorks had long stressed the fact that “Prince,” with its Bible-based images of plagues and mass infanticide, was not aimed at small children. But the question remains: How many adult moviegoers, with so many other features competing for their attention, will buy tickets for a religion-themed animated musical?

The studio had expected the film to play especially well in the American rural heartland, attracting infrequent moviegoers into theaters. That’s one of the reasons the studio opened the film in 3,118 locations, including a large number of theaters in tiny markets. So far, however, the lion’s share of the grosses have come from large urban markets.

“Prince’s” opening is roughly equivalent to that of 20th Century Fox’s more traditional animated kidpic, “Anastasia.” That film reaped $14.1 million in its first wide weekend on Nov. 21, eventually topping out at $58.4 million.

But DreamWorks has far bigger expectations for “Prince.”

“It should go up tremendously Christmas weekend,” said Jim Tharp, DreamWorks’ distribution chief. Tharp said opening grosses on the pre-Christmas weekend historically account for only 9%-15% of the final tally. That would put “Prince’s” domestic cume at somewhere between $95 and $158 million.

‘Trek’ falls

“Star Trek: Insurrection’s” sharp drop bodes poorly for the long-term health of the $58 million sci-fi sequel, which now appears on course to finish between $60 million and $70 million domestically. That would make it one of the least successful of the 19-year-old franchise’s nine installments.

Sophomore “Jack Frost” surprised some observers with a moderate 29% drop to $5 million. Still, the $40 million-plus Michael Keaton starrer appears unlikely to wind up with more than $35 million in its North American run.

In the arthouse arena, Sony Pictures Classics’ “The General” opened to an estimated $26,000 in two Gotham locations. That gives the John Boorman-helmed crime pic a $13,000 average.

In its sophomore frame, Miramax’s “Shakespeare in Love” dreamed up $330,000 in 19 locations in New York, Southern California and Canada. That gives the Gwyneth Paltrow starrer a $17,368 average; cume is $677,000. The film expands to over 200 screens on Christmas Day and then widens to 800-1000 screens on Jan. 8.

Two studios offered sneak previews of their Christmas Day releases over the weekend. Sony’s “Stepmom” sneaked on 649 screens, 55% of which were complete sellouts. Audience response was extremely positive overall, according to Sony Pictures Releasing prexy Jeff Blake, with 90% rating the film excellent or very good.

“That’s better than ‘My Best Friend’s Wedding’ and nearly as good as ‘As Good As It Gets,’ ” said Blake.

Not surprisingly, older female auds gave the highest grades to the film about a cancer-stricken divorced mother whose ex-husband is about to marry a younger woman. But over 90% of both older males and young women checked the top two boxes, said Blake. Young males were the least enthusiastic demographic group.

Buena Vista reported similarly strong results for its Saturday sneaks of “Mighty Joe Young.” With about two-thirds of theaters sold out, 90% of those in attendance rated the pic in the top two boxes. Also promising was the relatively even demographic mix: 51% male vs. 49% female, and 25% non-family. BV sneaked the pic again on Sunday afternoon.

Sony’s “Outside Ozona” grossed $6,500 in 10 locations before making a bee-line for the video shelf.