Tepid wickets wait for ‘Matrix’ melee

'X2' still heroic o'seas; 'Whale' rides to success in Oz

Sharp drops in total box office were recorded in many key international territories this past week as the “X-Men” sequel ran into lap two and distribs refrained from releasing broad titles ahead of “The Matrix Reloaded” juggernaut.

Fox’s “X2” Marvel Comics mutant spinoff notched $126 million by May 13 in 94 territories, after passing the magic $100 million in just 10 days.

Following its world preem on the Croisette, Warner and Roadshow roll out “Reloaded” in some key territories this weekend, but not all. Despite the threat of piracy (the distribs exercised strict security controls at advance media previews), pic will release in Blighty, Italy and Spain May 23, and Germany still later.

As a result, the frames in those territories are less predictable than in, say, Australia where the lack of competition, glowing reviews and a generous 203 print release enabled BVI pickup “Whale Rider” to rocket into second spot (after “X2”) with a five-day, $1.1 million haul. Director Niki Caro’s intimate seaside drama, which has become the second most popular domestic film ever released in New Zealand, was warmly embraced by its neighbors across the Tasman Sea.

Down Under, the B.O. dropped for the second consecutive weekend, 35% overall. The only other significant new releases fared well, considering the lack of competition — Columbia TriStar’s “National Security” and Palace Films’ small local drama from auteur Rolf De Heer, “Alexandra’s Project.”

In France, the overall B.O. fell 22%, after a strong previous frame, with auds saving their pocket money for “Matrix Reloaded” and, perhaps a little less hysterically, the Cannes opener “Fanfan La Tulipe.”

“X2” fell 46%. Still, pic far and away outperformed other titles in the top 10, pocketing more than $4.3 million in its soph sesh and holding out against homegrown adolescent actioner “Gomez and Tavares,” which debuted at No. 2 with $2.6 million.

“Gomez and Tavares,” the second feature from helmer Gilles Paquet-Brenner, stars Gallic rapper-cum-thesp Stomey Bugsy and French comedian Titoff. Exhibs felt it could have gone either way, but a strong publicity campaign and the rapper-comedian combo successfully attracted the powerful teen aud in Paris and the provinces. The week’s surprise was Pascale Pouzadoux’s debut “All the Girls Are Crazy,” which collected $778,800 from a modest 152 screens.

Germany’s B.O. also dropped sharply as sunny, warm days kept moviegoers outdoors. “X2” remained at No. 1 but dropped 56%, while another recent box office champ, “Johnny English,” sank 57% in lap three. The Rowan Atkinson laffer had been steaming along but in the middle of last week had still not surpassed $100 million.

With the preem for “Reloaded” still a few weeks off, the debut for “Anger Management” “provided a strong alternative to ‘X-Men 2,’ ” noted one exhib, who observed that the Jack Nicholson/Adam Sandler two-hander got mixed reviews but attracted attention thanks to a strong marketing rollout. “It’s getting to that time of year when people want to be outdoors and enjoy the weather, and it’s felt at the box office,” the exhib added.

In Italy, the B.O. fell 7% to its lowest point this year despite a handful of new releases, and “X2” dipped just 29%, way below its average drop-off. New releases, “High Crimes” and “My Little Eye” took the second and third post.

The weekend’s best performer, according to one exhib was “Eye.” The per-screen figure for UIP’s teen frightener, on 114 screens, was slightly better than “Crimes,” which opened on 240 and performed, according to one exhib, below expectations — “but the last two weekends have been bad — everyone is waiting for ‘The Matrix,’ and we are expecting a B.O. similar to the opening of ‘Spider-Man,’ ” he added.

One surprise performer in Italy is Spike Lee’s “25th Hour” which has taken $2.9 million in four weekends. The figure is 38% of the $13 million total in the U.S. — an impressive result from a market that typically pulls only 5% of the domestic gross.

In Blighty, biz was down 37% — despite a three-day bank holiday. “X2” dropped 56% but easily retained the top spot. Given the favorable reviews it garnered and a glitzy London world preem, exhibs had hoped for a somewhat smaller drop-off but said they can hardly complain with the sort of numbers the comicbook pic is making. Hopes are high that “X2” can still lure some auds when “The Matrix Reloaded” opens on May 21. None of this week’s openers look set to topple “X2” till then.

Reviewers savaged three other newcomers, laffer “Old School,” teen frightener “Darkness Falls” and “Hope Springs.” So exhibs were happy when helmer Todd “Road Trip” Phillips’ gross-out comedy “Old School” took the second spot in the charts.

“Darkness Falls” didn’t fare as well, with auds apparently preferring the former. “Hope Springs” flopped. Critics dubbed Colin Firth a “poor man’s Hugh Grant,” and the romantic comedy limped into the seventh spot with a sickly screen average of $1,934 but fared better in the West End, a traditional “date” destination.

(Lisa Klaussman in France, Ed Meza in Germany, Archie Thomas in the U.K. and Sheri Jennings in Italy contributed to this report.)

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