‘Brock’s’ office smash

Roberts powers Universal gaveler to $28 mil debut

In the high-stakes game of box office poker, Julia Roberts lately has been the ultimate trump card.

Holding that card for the first time since last May, Universal didn’t bother bluffing. It launched “Erin Brockovich” aggressively on 2,847 screens and raked in a $28.2 million pot. That nearly tripled the takes of runners-up “Mission to Mars” and “Final Destination.”

“From the very first cut we saw, we knew we had an amazing story and we could just watch it play,” said U distrib chief Nikki Rocco. “There’s no question about the legs of this film.”

Long-term prospects aside, “Brockovich” bow boasted many impressive traits:

  • It confounded the usual wisdom that reality-based fare is commercially challenged. It wound up No. 3 all time for any drama, behind only “Titanic” and “Saving Private Ryan.”

  • It’s No. 2 ever in March and No. 2 for Roberts behind last summer’s “Runaway Bride.” It’s No. 5 of any pic not released in May, June, July or November.

  • It could give director Steven Soderbergh his biggest hit yet by next weekend. His prior high, “Out of Sight,” grossed $37.5 million in 1998, also at Universal.

  • “Brockovich,” blessed with nearly unanimous critical praise and stellar exit polls, got many B.O. watchers thinking about the Oscars, but of course Roberts isn’t yet in the running.

Two pics that are quite eligible this Sunday, “The Cider House Rules” and “American Beauty,” extended their hard-fought kudo season battle.

DreamWorks’ “Beauty” finished seventh for the frame with $2.9 million, but 21% dip was its biggest in several weeks. It did crack the $100 million plateau, though, with a cume now at $102.7 million. Miramax’s “Cider House” followed with $2.4 million, but also saw receipts dive 31%. Total tally is up to $45.7 million.

With U eating up about 31% of the total B.O. pie, rivals fought mostly for scraps. Still, the “Brockovich”-boosted total of $92 million for the weekend repped an 18% surge over the year-ago period, ACNielsen EDI estimated.

The way it crumbled in its sophomore frame, Disney’s space pic could have been retitled “Mission to Mir.”

Last week’s clear champ with $22.9 million declined 52% amid poor word of mouth. Brian De Palma pic just barely cleared $40 million barrier and has work to do to finish north of $60 million.

On the flip side for Mouse House, “The Tigger Movie” re-entered the top 10 despite a 24% drop. Toon made on the cheap is already up to $41.7 million entering its sixth weeks of release.

New Line’s “Final Destination” succeeded in reaching young male auds not drawn to the concept of Roberts in a push-up bra. Dark thriller about death’s revenge on a teen with precognitive powers stars Devon Sawa and Ali Larter. Lack of star power forced minimajor’s marketing machine into overdrive, and execs bragged that a healthy 32% of auds cited print ads as a motivation to buy a ticket. They were less eager to tout the fact that 75% of exit poll respondents rated the pic “very good” or “excellent.” That feedback doesn’t suggest durability, though “Destination” will likely join a long list of unspectacular-yet-profitable New Line pics aimed at sub-30 demo.

Best hold of any title was 8% decline for Warner Bros.’ surprising “My Dog Skip,” a G-rated nostalgia pic. The frame’s No. 4 release has taken in $21.8 million and WB distrib chief Dan Fellman sees it reaching $40 million.

Yes, there’s still lots of money to be made lots of different ways, but “Brockovich” showed how a well-positioned star can raise coin in a hurry.

Roberts has delivered more than most of her A-list peers, especially over the past three years.

“Brockovich” was her fifth opening in a row of at least $19 million.

Plus, while 63% of Saturday night’s “Brockovich” auds were female and 55% were 30 and older, crossover potential is high. True story of legal underling who uncovers pollution and helps secure a $330 million settlement for a small town holds appeal for those unmoved by a typical Roberts romantic comedy.

Broad base of support could be found in 46% Friday-Saturday jump and in exit polls. About 98% of respondents checked boxes marked either “very good” or “excellent” and 86% chose “excellent,” — levels normally reserved for blockbusters.

Nothing on the specialized circuit packed “Brockovich”-type heat, but Lions Gate brought in a solid $950,000 from 298 runs of wrestling docu “Beyond the Mat.”

Indie distrib bought the pic from Universal after its strong one-week Oscar qualifying run several months ago. Lions Gate has courted controversy with last fall’s “Dogma,” the upcoming “American Psycho” and “Mat,” an unauthorized glimpse at pro wrestlers’ foibles.

Ads plugged it as the film (World Wrestling Federation head) Vince McMahon “doesn’t want you to see.” McMahon has barred “Mat” ads from WWF telecasts.

Unlike most docus, which do most of their biz in Gotham and other major markets, “Mat” thrived in Middle American settings like Cincinnati and Nashville. Its screen average of $3,188 was respectable.

“We kind of broke the mold that way, so we’re pretty jazzed,” said Lions Gate’s Tom Ortenberg.

Artisan shrugged off the 47% dip on Roman Polanski non-performer “The Ninth Gate,” pointing to much more encouraging number on Jim Jarmusch-directed “Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai.” Pic collected $425,000 from 71 sites in about a dozen cities. Average of $5,986 was buoyed by scant 24% falloff in original Gotham locations.

Limited-release stalwart “Boys Don’t Cry” geared up for the Oscars by reaching its widest release point, 259 screens. Weekend take of $496,500 brings cume to $6.8 million after 24 weeks.

Fox Searchlight sees an eventual tally of at least $10 million, especially if Oscar nominees Hilary Swank or Chloe Sevigny bring home the gold. Searchlight also debuted “Soft Fruit” in one Gotham venue and took in $6,508.

Sony’s “What Planet Are You From?” now qualifies as a limited release, having sunk to 655 runs. Gross of $260,000 was off 82% from a week ago, putting cume of Mike Nichols-helmed misfire at $6.2 million, barely one-tenth its production budget.

Next time, maybe Nichols will cast Julia Roberts.

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