‘Helsing’ stakes claim

U's horror hybrid is tops with $54 million

“Van Helsing” opened big, but it wasn’t a monster.

Universal’s new take on its fright classics, the first summer blockbuster of the season, topped the weekend’s box office with $54.2 million from 3,575 locations.

The frame’s only other wide opener, “New York Minute,” starring Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen, debuted at No. 4, grossing $6.2 million from 3,006 playdates. Claiming the weekend’s No. 2 spot was Paramount’s “Mean Girls,” which grossed $14 million in its second week, followed by 20th Century Fox’s “Man on Fire” at $7.9 million in its third week.

Largely because of the successful openings of Stephen Sommers’ two “Mummy” pics the first weekend of May — “The Mummy” opened in 1999 to $43.4 million and “The Mummy Returns” debuted with $68.1 million in 2001 — the frame has become the official start date for Hollywood’s summer season.

“Van Helsing” opening trails those of the past three years, including last year’s “X2,” which posted $85.6 million; 2002’s “Spider-Man,” which set records with $114.8 million; and “The Mummy Returns.””Every film that outgrossed us was either a sequel or had hugely recognizable characters,” U distrib prexy Nikki Rocco said. “When you look at this as (film as having) non-recognized characters — not unlike the original “Mummy” — what’s not to like?”

According to the studio’s exit poll data, the aud had slightly more males than females and was nearly evenly split between people under age 25 and adults over 25.

U is optimistic that the PG-13 rated “Van Helsing” will hold well in its second week against R-rated opener “Troy” from Warners.

Both “Mummy” pics faced very mediocre competition in their second weeks of release and managed to retain the No. 1 box office rank two weeks in a row. Still, the “Mummy” pics made around 30% of their total domestic cume on their opening weekends. If “Van Helsing,” which U says cost $160 million to produce, performs similarly, it would end up with a domestic take around $180 million. A perf like Sommers’ “The Scorpion King,” which made 40% of its total domestic run on its opening weekend, would mean a domestic take in the neighborhood of $135 million.

In U’s largest day-and-date release, “Van Helsing” also unspooled in 41 countries outside the U.S., grossing $53 million. U said it added $10 million to the production budget for post-production rush fees so prints could be available in all territories.

Olsen appeal limited

The Olsen twins, who have built an empire out of their dozens of direct-to-video titles, did not expand their fan base with their latest theatrical release. Pic performed well with their core fans, pulling in an aud made up 83% of girls under age 11, according to Warners distrib prexy Dan Fellman.

“While I’m a little disappointed, I hope word of mouth will fuel the performance over the coming few weeks,” he said. “The verdict’s not quite in yet.”

Warners had counterprogrammed “New York Minute” against “Van Helsing” much as Disney used “The Lizzie McGuire Movie” last year, picking up $17.3 million in its first weekend. But unlike “McGuire,” the Olsens pic had to contend for with “Mean Girls” for young female filmgoers.

Despite being challenged on two fronts, “Mean Girls” declined just 43% in its sophomore session. It played in 2,972 theaters with $4,711 per engagement. Cume stands at $42.4 million. Par distrib prexy Wayne Lewellen said the pic’s $14 million figure may increase after actual totals come in because films with heavy female auds tend to do well on Mother’s Day.

No passion for ‘Jones’

Other than “Mean Girls,” none of last week’s openers posted impressive numbers. New Line’s “Laws of Attraction” slumped 48% to $3.5 million, Lions Gate’s “Godsend” dipped 60% to $2.7 million and DreamWorks’ “Envy” declined 57% to $2.6 million. Poorly performing golf biopic “Bobby Jones: Stroke of Genius” sank 58% to gross just $517,984 from 986 locations, a subpar average of just $525 per engagement.

Nielsen EDI estimated the weekend’s total box office take at $112 million — exactly flat from the same weekend last year, when “X2” lead the pack with $40 million in its second week. Year-to-date, total box office of $2.763 billion is up 5% against last year’s $2.642 billion.

Because 2004 is a leap year, the summer movie season is starting one week later this year. So, Nielsen EDI’s seasonal comparison matches this weekend against the “X2” opening on May 2, 2003. On that chart, the summer 2004 number is off 27% against the first week of summer 2003, when total box office stood at $153 million.

Morgan Spurlock’s fast-food bashing doc “Super Size Me” got off to a good start, grossing $536,936 off 41 screens in eight cities, giving the pic an impressive $13,096 average.

Super-sized campaign

Hoping to cash in on public awareness generated from gobs of media attention, distribs Roadside Attractions and the Samuel Goldwyn Co. have opened the documentary more aggressively than docs typically are. For example, Michael Moore’s “Bowling for Columbine” opened with just eight playdates in 2002 and grossed $209,148 for a per screen average of $26,143. “Super Size Me” will expand even further next week, adding all top 20 markets, for a total of more than 100 playdates.

In other limited openers, Rialto Pictures re-released the original 1954 Japanese “Godzilla” on two screens in Gotham and San Francisco and grossed $40,000. It will add L.A. next week.

Thinkfilm’s “Still We Believe,” a doc about the Boston Red Sox’s 2003 season, grossed $100,945 from 17 screens in Boston, a $5,938 per screen average. Pic will add playdates in Boston and throughout New England next week.

Miramax’s Argentinian drama “Valentin” opened on two screens in Gotham and L.A. and grossed $13,000.

Lantern Entertainment’s “Seeing Other People” grossed $38,182 from 16 screens, giving it a $2,386 per screen average. Innovative’s mail-order bride pic “A Foreign Affair” opened with $11,600 from 10 screens in L.A., Phoenix and Grand Rapids, Mich., for a $1,160 per screen average.