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‘Romeo’ livens Wednesday B.O.

Pic poised to battle 'Erin'

If you assumed this weekend would be a typical Oscar-induced snooze at the box office, wherefore art thou now? “Romeo Must Die,” fueled by a boffo Wednesday bow, is poised to inject thrills into the historically weak frame.

Warner Bros. hip-hop martial arts actioner starring Jet Li, Delroy Lindo and R&B songstress Aaliyah debuted Wednesday with an impressive $4.1 million on 2,602 screens. “Romeo’s” tally nearly doubled the $2.2 million recorded by Universal’s “Erin Brockovich,” last weekend’s runaway winner.

It’s the second-biggest Wednesday figure — debut or otherwise — ever posted between January and April, according to WB distrib chief Dan Fellman. The No. 1 bow belongs to “The Matrix,” another Warners actioner produced by Joel Silver.

“We purposely put it out this week because our audience is not the Oscar audience,” said Warners production topper Lorenzo Di Bonaventura.

Challenging ‘Erin’

While solid Wednesday launches are increasingly common, especially on pics with urban appeal, “Romeo” receipts suggest “Brockovich” will get a serious challenge in the Friday-Sunday span, especially with adult females torn between the Oscar telecast and “Brockovich.” Also opening Friday are teen-skewing pics “Here on Earth” from Fox and “Whatever It Takes” from Sony.

It happens every spring. A couple of titles wind up clicking with movie auds, creating a rising tide that lifts all boats right through the summer sweepstakes. Last year at this time, the B.O. was floundering before “Analyze This” and “The Matrix” delivered a boost in March and April. Then along came the “Star Wars” juggernaut, which propelled the 1999 business to record levels.

This year, “Scream 3” roared out of the gate in February, but a horror sequel tends to be held to a different standard, particularly one blessed with a record opening screen count.

Last week’s $28.1 million score for “Brockovich” was the year’s most powerful statement, considering it’s a reality-based drama aimed at adults and one with stellar exit polls. Many distribs were relieved when it helped juice overall receipts 18% over the comparable frame a year ago.

Bullish on ‘Romeo’

While most WB execs are superstitious about comparing “Romeo” to “The Matrix” this early on, they’re already bullish about its prospects. An opening in the $20 million neighborhood would signal a substantial profit for the pic that Warners developed and produced entirely inhouse for an estimated $25 million.

Execs also are taking satisfaction in the fact that few B.O. pundits had circled “Romeo” as a likely hit.

“We just sat back quietly,” Fellman said. “We knew from our early screenings that we had something strong and the Wednesday opening gives us a preview of what’s to come.”

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