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Arnold’s back but B.O. isn’t

Even $72 milion 'T3' haul can't halt summer malaise

This article was updated at 7:06 p.m.

The box office was the one place without fireworks this past weekend.

“Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines” topped weekend rankings with an estimated $44 million. But pic’s five-day haul of $72.5 million, which includes $4 million from Tuesday night previews, fell short of most pre-release projections.

Still, opening of the Arnold Schwarzenegger actioner — produced by Intermedia and C2 and distribbed by Warner Bros. domestically — gave topliner and director Jonathan Mostow (“U-571”) personal bests and reps the second best bow ever for an R-rated pic after “The Matrix Reloaded” ($91.2 million).

“Being an R-rated movie and having this kind of performance is very unique,” C2 partner Andy Vanja said. “We’ve terminated the competition.”

MGM sequel laffer “Legally Blonde: Red, White & Blonde” opened at No. 2 with an estimated $22.9 million weekend and $39.2 million over five days. And Sony’s “Charlie’s Angels 2: Full Throttle” was third with $14.2 million on a big 63% drop from its opening sesh.

DreamWorks toon “Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas” never dropped anchor, debuting poorly with just $6.8 million in sixth place.

Industrywide, the weekend repped a big 15% decline from last year’s holiday frame with $131 million in total estimated grosses, according to box office tracker Nielsen EDI. Limp sesh seemed to mimic the 1997 Independence Day weekend, when the holiday’s falling on a Friday last split a five-day span and prompted a bout of moviegoing interruptus due to preoccupations with barbecues and family outings.

But there also appears to be a more protracted moviegoing malaise at work presently, with summer B.O. off 4% from a year earlier. Year-to-date, 2003 is off 5% from a comparable portion of last year.

Focus dives in

Meanwhile, a limited bow this weekend reflected some relative strength in the specialty market. Focus Features suspenser “Swimming Pool” grossed an estimated $286,149 from 13 theaters in six cities, or an impressive $22,011 per venue. Pic — which bowed Wednesday and totes a $375,809 cume — adds 13 cities Friday for about three dozen runs. Elsewhere, Newmarket expanded drama “Whale Rider” by 37 playdates for a total 210 and grossed an estimated $1.2 million. That repped a solid $5,858 per engagement, riding cume to $4.1 million. Pic adds another 50 locations Friday.

Sony Classics docu “Winged Migration” flew into an additional 29 sites for a total 108 and grossed $484,473, or an acceptable $4,486 with a $4.8 million cume. Magnolia docu “Capturing the Friedmans” added 10 runs for a total 70 in grossing $260,000, or $3,714 per venue with a $1.5 million cume. And Miramax broadened romancer “Jet Lag” by three theaters for a total 21, grossing $67,000, or $3,190 per venue. Cume reached $253,956.

Producer Hal Lieberman, of Mostow-Lieberman Prods., predicted “T3” will prove to be more than “a one-week movie” and display a good marketplace hold in coming weeks. “You can always do better, but this was great,” Intermedia chairman Moritz Borman said. Just last July, Sony’s “Men in Black 2” grossed $52.1 million over the holiday weekend and $87.2 million over a five-day span.

Bested ‘T2’ bow

But “T3” did outpace its franchise predecessor by a bunch, helped by super-saturation releasing of the sort that’s come into vogue 12 years after “Terminator 2: Judgment Day.” “T2” grossed $52 million over the five-day holiday stretch in July 1991. Perf had stood as both frame’s biggest R-rated opener and Schwarzenegger’s biggest bow until “T3.”

“I’m thrilled with the number,” Warners distrib boss Dan Fellman said of the “T3” opening. “There are a lot of things that families do on the July 4 weekend (and) I think we came out really, really well.”

It’s believed production costs on “T3” hit $200 million. Warners paid $50 million to acquire domestic distribution and Sony a reported $75 million for most foreign rights.

“Legally Blonde” cost dramatically less to produce but was similarly touted to perform a bit better than it did. Execs claimed satisfaction with inaugural frame nonetheless. “It’s a good number (and) a good start,” MGM distrib topper Erik Lomis said. “Blonde 2” drew auds comprised 70% of femmes, with a majority of patrons under age 21.

‘Sinbad’ sinks

DreamWorks distrib topper Jim Tharp blamed the dismal “Sinbad” bow on a “a continued downturn in the popularity of non-comedy, traditionally animated movies.”

Indeed, the “Sinbad” disappointment follows poor bows for several similar toons, though observers will argue whether the blame should be placed more on content or production techniques. Notably, DreamWorks doesn’t have a single picture on its upcoming slate involving conventional cel animation. In addition to its CGI toons, DreamWorks will continue to release pictures produced by U.K. based Aardvark, which uses claymation techniques.

Previous misfires include Disney’s “Treasure Planet,” a $12.1 million opener last November; Sony’s “Final Fantasy,” which bowed at $11.4 million in July 2001; and 20th Century Fox’s “Titan A.E.,” which debuted with $9.4 million in June 2000.

Industryites will surely also be abuzz this week about whether summer ’03 has any hope of ever catching fire. Next weekend doesn’t look so hot from an industry perspective, as two wide openers target uncomfortably similar auds. Disney opens the Jerry Bruckheimer-produced “Pirates of the Caribbean,” while Fox unspools “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.” Both pics rep popcorn actioners, with “League” targeting a slightly older crowd.

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