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‘West’ best but ‘Daddy’ natty

Smith starrer tops as seven pix top $10 mil

Warner Bros.’ big-budget actioner “Wild Wild West” rode off with an estimated $36.8 million bounty over the four-day weekend, leading the Independence Day holiday into near-record territory. Since its Wednesday debut, the Will Smith starrer has amassed a projected $50.1 million six-day cume.

While “West’s” opening was certainly solid — especially given the pic’s poor critical reception — it paled by comparison to Smith’s two previous July 4 weekend blockbusters, “Independence Day” and “Men in Black,” which racked up three-day grosses of $50.2 million and $51.1 million respectively. Last summer’s holiday entry, Buena Vista’s “Armageddon,” launched to $36.1 million in three days.

Warner Bros. execs will anxiously await “West’s” second weekend grosses to get a clearer picture of the pic’s long-term health. After all, there’s a lot of money at stake. The studio has reported the film’s production budget at $105 million, while insiders put the number closer to $180 million. Worldwide marketing costs could bring the total pricetag to well over a quarter of a billion dollars.

Young crowd

According to WB distribution prexy Dan Fellman, “West” is playing best to the under-18 crowd, a demographic group whose attention is also being sought by the likes of “Big Daddy,” “Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me,” “Tarzan” and “Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace.”

“We’re going to come back this week with a strong TV campaign geared toward our target audience,” said Fellman.

But if “West’s” opening didn’t exactly set off fireworks, the overall marketplace remained explosive. Total ticket sales for the frame appeared on track to rival the record $163.8 million set in 1996, when “Independence Day” blasted off. But unlike that year, when a single film accounted for more than a third of the domestic marketplace, the past weekend’s riches were divided much more democratically. Seven films enjoyed $10 million-plus tallies over the four-day period.

‘South Park’

Among those sharing in the spoils were Paramount and Warner Bros.’ “South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut,” which bowed to $14.8 million in 2,128 locations for a healthy $6,188 per screen average. Since its impressive Wednesday opening, the bigscreen version of Comedy Central’s edgy animated series has racked up a cume of $23.1 million — slightly more than its reported negative cost of $21 million.

Also scoring higher than many had predicted was Buena Vista’s “Summer of Sam.” Despite mixed reviews, the 1970s period piece spiked a $7.8 million four-day gross in 1,536 hardtops, or $5,078 per screen.

Not surprisingly, the gritty, R-rated drama did best in major urban markets, while finding few takers in small town America. Genderwise, auds were split roughly evenly, while 89% of those surveyed were in the 18-50 age group.

It was director Spike Lee’s third highest opening to date, behind the three-day debuts of 1992’s “Malcolm X” ($9.9 million) and 1998’s “He Got Game” ($7.6 million).

‘Big’ results

Second place for the weekend went to Sony’s sophomore “Big Daddy,” which dropped 52% to $26.4 million. (Percentage drops compare the Friday-Sunday portion of the holiday weekend with the previous three-day frame.)

With an 11-day cume of $90.1 million, “Big Daddy” appears on track to finish its domestic run somewhere between $140 million and $150 million.

Warner Bros.’ decision to open “West” on Wednesday, despite generally scathing reviews, initially raised eyebrows among rival distribution execs. A Wednesday opening usually indicates the studio is extremely confident about a film’s audience-pleasing potential.

By Sunday, however, Warners’ competitors were willing to concede that the move had paid off, since the weekend numbers showed no signs of having suffered from the midweek opening.

Star-power

“There’s a theory,” said one distribution topper, “that if you open on Wednesday, audiences will forget about the bad reviews by the weekend.” More likely, however, Smith’s star-power weighed more heavily in moviegoers decision-making process than critics’ complaints.

In the arthouse arena, Miramax’s “Lovers on the Bridge” jumped off to a $26,900 start in two theaters in New York and L.A.

Lions Gate’s holdover “The Red Violin” serenaded $825,000 in 260 theaters, off just 20% from the previous frame. “It’s an example of good old fashioned word-of-mouth at work,” said Lions Gate Releasing co-president Tom Ortenberg, who noted that the picture actually saw significant increases in several key theaters. The pic has cumed $4.8 million in North America, roughly half of that since its U.S. release a month ago.

Meanwhile, Arisan’s music docu “Buena Vista Social Club” continues to perform. The pic was up 28% to $375,000. In 50 nightclubs, the Wim Wenders helmed feature averaged a red-hot $7,500 per screen average. Cume is $1.5 million after a month in platform release.

“We still think there’s a long way to go on this picture,” said Artisan exec VP Steve Rothenberg.

Miramax’s sophomore “My Son the Fanatic” was up 61% to $77,600 after widening its run from five to 14 theaters.