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‘Mum’s’ the word

U pic stands tall as 'Menace' approaches

Universal’s “The Mummy” dug up $25.1 million in its second expedition, with a relatively well-preserved 42% drop from its spectacular $43.4 million debut a week earlier.

The effects-driven horror pic is demonstrating staying power similar to last year’s early-May opener “Deep Impact.” That film blasted off to $41.2 million on May 7, dropped 43% in its sophomore frame, and eventually racked up a $140.5 million cume. “The Mummy,” which after 10 days is running about 8% ahead of “Impact,” seems likely to top out at roughly $150 million.

Meanwhile, Twentieth Century Fox’s “Entrapment” continued its solid hold on second place, dropping a modest 29% to $8.7 million in its third weekend. That brings the cume for the Sean Connery/Catherine Zeta-Jones thriller to $50.7 million. The pic now appears on track to make off with around $70 million domestically.

Despite four new openers (each on less than 1,100 screens) only the top two films grossed more than $5 million, as the box office took a deep breath before plunging into Wednesday’s opening of “Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace.” Total weekend ticket sales were estimated at roughly $69 million, on par with this time last year, but down about 21% from the previous frame.

That’s not to say people weren’t rushing to theaters in droves, however. They were — but to buy tickets for the upcoming “Star Wars” prequel. Across the nation, in suburban megaplexes and top-grossing urban houses alike, tickets for this coming weekend’s shows have been moving faster than a Tatooine pod racer. One major theater chain purportedly sold a million dollars worth of advanced tickets on Wednesday, the first day they went on sale.

The frenzy certainly can’t be attributed to paid advertising, however. In Los Angeles, “Menace’s” arrival was trumpeted by an easy-to-miss three-column ad on page 19 of Sunday’s Times. The Sunday New York Times had no ad at all.

“When you have awareness of 100%, what do you need newspaper ads for?” said 20th Domestic Film Group chairman Tom Sherak.

Given the intense interest in the pic by both the media and longtime “Star Wars” fans — not to mention the megamillions in cross-promotions — it’s no surprise Lucasfilm didn’t feel compelled to spend a lot on advertising. Still, even jaded industryites were slack-jawed at just how laid-back the campaign has been so far.

The L.A. Times ad named only six key theaters plus the inevitable “and a theater near you.” But as Sherak put it, “People who are going to see it Wednesday already know where they’re going to see it.”

Among the past weekend’s openers, Fox Searchlight and Regency’s “William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream” landed in fourth place, with $4.4 million on 1,080 stages, or $4,259 per site.

Also opening to solid numbers was Artisan’s martial-arts actioner “Black Mask.” The Jet Li starrer kicked off to an estimated $4.2 million in 979 fights for a sturdy $4,290 average.

Beacon and Rogue Pictures’ party comedy “Trippin’ ” tipped the scales at just $2.6 million in 770 theaters, or $3,364 per house. The pic has cumed $3.2 million since its Wednesday opening.

While the gross was less than the filmmakers had hoped for, “Trippin’s” upward trajectory over the weekend offered some reason for optimism, said October distribution president Jack Foley.

After a soft Wednesday and Thursday, the film began to catch on in suburban multiplexes Friday evening. On Saturday, it saw a 56% jump over Friday, largely on the strength of increased attendance at urban houses in top markets.

MGM’s “Tea with Mussolini” enjoyed the best per-screen average of the newcomers, with a studio estimated $1.7 million gross on just 270 theaters, or $6,167 per site. Not surprisingly, the Franco Zeffirelli-helmed wartime drama scored mainly with moviegoers 40 and up.

MGM worldwide distribution president Larry Gleason credited an extensive advance screening program targeted at older auds with building positive word-of-mouth for the pic. The Italian-British co-production has already opened in Italy and the U.K., where it enjoyed strong holds following lackluster debuts.

Fox’s “Never Been Kissed” remains virtuous, dropping just 18% to $2.5 million. Cume to date is an impressive $43.8 million.

In addition to “The Mummy’s” strong hold, Universal execs had another reason to cheer: The results of Saturday’s sneak previews of their May 28 opener “Notting Hill.” The 856 screenings, which were mostly paired with U’s “Life,” were 90% full, according to U distribution president Nikki Rocco. Better yet, audiences heartily approved of the Julia Roberts-Hugh Grant starrer, with 92% of those surveyed rating the pic excellent or very good.

“We’re on a roll,” Rocco enthused.

Among exclusive releases, Stratosphere estimated a $25,000 opening weekend for Joan Chen’s directorial debut, “Xiu Xiu,” which bowed in five New York locations.

Miramax’s “The Castle” grossed a downbeat $105,000 in 35 movie palaces in the top 20 markets, or $3,000 per location. That doesn’t bode well for the Australian pic, which Miramax bought at the 1998 Sundance Film Festival for a reported $6 million. The Castle expands into exclusive runs in the top 40 markets Friday.

Miramax’s Italian-language pic “Iris Blond” bowed to a dull $3,400 in a single New York run.