Go 4th and multiply

Hopes high as 'Storm,' 'Patriot' enter five-day battle

This article was corrected on June 30, 2000.

Mel Gibson fires the first shot today in the battle of the Fourth of July as Sony’s “The Patriot” opens with 3,000-plus engagements.

The Revolutionary War epic will have two days to itself before Warner Bros.’ George Clooney starrer “The Perfect Storm” arrives. That’s when the real holiday fun begins.

The two pics are entering a historic faceoff. Never before have two titles with $100 million-plus negative costs, all-out marketing blitzes and high expectations gone head to head over July 4 or Memorial Day.

Rivals would normally be salivating at the thought of one pic taking a high-profile bath, but this year everyone hopes both Mel and George strike gold. The reason: The summer B.O. badly needs a tonic, with grosses off 6% from this point last summer due to a soft June.

The release slate in May, June and July often boasts intense rivalry, but this weekend is in a different league. In fact, any comparison to previous summers is specious. The biggest “matchup” may have been in 1995, when “Mighty Morphin Power Rangers,” “Apollo 13” and “Judge Dredd” stepped into the ring. “Apollo’s” final tally of $172.1 million quadrupled those of its earthbound foes.

The only time two competing summer holiday pics have each gone on to post $75 million or more domestically was 1996, with “Phenomenon” reaching $104.6 million and “Independence Day” commanding $306.2 million.

But that was a case of counterprogramming. This time, it’s film-to-film combat, with two saturation releases seeking almost the identical audience. Though “Patriot” opens today, both pics will have five-day bows thanks to the Fourth of July holiday falling on Tuesday.

Studio stakes

Sony and Warner Bros. are trying to downplay the head-to-head competition, which is a bit like Wile E. Coyote claiming he doesn’t like to chase the Road Runner. Both have had fairly tepid years thus far, with Warners ranking fifth in B.O. market share, and Sony seventh. Both also endured large-scale misfires in May, WB with “Battlefield Earth” and Sony with “I Dreamed of Africa.”

“I take the opposite view” from those focusing on the head-to-head contest, said Sony distrib chief Jeff Blake. “These two movies are in competition for one weekend, but after that they’re both going to have long lives.”

Indeed, both pics are tracking well. Most B.O. observers feel that there will be auds for both of them. Of course, they’ll face some distractions in the Universal debut “The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle” and two sophomores, Fox’s “Me, Myself & Irene” and DreamWorks’ “Chicken Run.”

One rival distrib vet is already declaring both “Patriot” and “Perfect Storm” winners. “They will both be able to at least do business in the short term,” he said.

Anxious production and creative execs at both Sony and Warners refuse to discuss their chances, leaving all the talk to their distrib chiefs.

The skittishness of top brass is one hallmark of this unprecedented Fourth. Consider some others:

  • Neither studio blinked. Warners and Sony have been locked on this same date for months, defying the usual rules of chicken that force one studio to move.

    Perhaps the most memorable last-minute shift came around Memorial Day 1993. Arnold Schwarzenegger starrer “Last Action Hero” was on a collision course with “Jurassic Park.” Columbia opted to move Arnold back a week, and “Hero” turned tragic, getting steamrolled by “Jurassic.”

    This year, “Patriot” originally staked out this Friday, only to slide up two days to a Wednesday bow. Some industryites, notably Warners distrib chief Dan Fellman, contend Sony flinched and made the move out of desperation.

    “When you do that, you’re leading with the chin,” Fellman said.

    Sony says it simply wanted to get a head start and expand the opening window, much as Paramount did with “Mission: Impossible 2.”

    “This is more than just a few days at the center of just any week,” Blake noted.

    Brad Ball, marketing prexy at Warners, said competition these days is inevitable.

    “We couldn’t really sit there and pick and choose a weekend that wouldn’t be completely full,” he noted. “That doesn’t seem to be the world we live in.”

  • Both films have obvious weak spots. With “Storm,” it’s clearly Clooney, who is no Mel Gibson at the B.O. Another hurdle is a downbeat ending, familiar to readers of the best-selling Sebastian Junger book, in which the lead characters die. One undaunted Warners exec offered that “not many people have seen the book” — an apt way of phrasing it in Hollywood.

    Certainly pics like “Titanic” or “Gladiator” didn’t suffer commercially due to the deaths of their protagonists. But the “Storm” publicity hypes man vs. nature while giving no hints of the human catastrophe. Some feel it’s a risky strategy.

    “Hiding that will get them through the first weekend,” said one exec with marketing duties at another studio. “But the word of mouth is still, ‘Everyone dies.’ I don’t see anyone getting excited after hearing that.”

    Yet Gibson and company have an equally tough row to hoe: an R rating for the frequently violent “Patriot.” (“Storm” is rated PG-13.)

    The top-grossing bow of any R-rated pic was “Air Force One” at $37.1 million, and the most successful overall B.O. tally was “Beverly Hills Cop’s” $234.8 million. Only three R’s — “Cop,” “Saving Private Ryan” and “Terminator 2” — have ever made it past $200 million in the U.S.

    Then there’s the American Revolution issue. Hollywood’s feel for early America is as wooden as Washington’s teeth as evidenced by such misfires as “Revolution” and “Jefferson in Paris.” Indeed, there are doubters who feel that however compelling the story or stirring the action, auds may react like seventh-graders preparing for an exam.

    Many observers also note that “Patriot” runs 164 minutes, 39 minutes longer than “Storm.”

    “We didn’t make it as a history lesson,” said Blake. “And we don’t think that’s how audiences will perceive it.”

  • Whoever wins, a record is likely. Most observers see big fireworks. This five-day Fourth of July frame is a good bet to surpass Memorial Day as the top B.O. frame of all time.

    “With the movies that are going to be out there, you’ve got all ends of the spectrum covered,” said Randy Hester, VP of marketing for major theater circuit Cinemark USA. “I’d be very surprised if it wasn’t a record.”

    Last Independence Day featured a slate of Yankee Doodle squat. Wide bows included a wobbly tentpole (“Wild Wild West”), a spunky animated pic (“South Park”) and Spike Lee’s “Summer of Sam.”

    Yet the frame still had enough depth to establish what was then the all-time mark: $166 million over four days.

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