‘Sith’ degrees of separation

Three pics top $60 mil in B.O. heat wave

In the second biggest four-day frame ever, three titles earned $60 million or more during the Memorial Day weekend. This three-fer is a box office first.

“Star Wars: Episode III — Revenge of the Sith,” distribbed by 20th Century Fox, led the way with $70.8 million in its second week. Comparing three-day spans, George Lucas’ sci-fi finale was down 49% against its opening.

Pic’s cume through its first 12 days is a massive $271.2 million. On Sunday, “Sith” crossed the $500 million mark worldwide.

“Madagascar” and “The Longest Yard” duked it out all weekend for second place, but in the end the CGI toon edged out the football remake, $61 million to $60 million.

DreamWorks launched “Madagascar” ultrawide at 4,131 locations, while Paramount’s “Longest Yard” unspooled at 3,634.

The weekend’s total of $230 million, as estimated by Nielsen EDI, is second only to last year’s monster Memorial Day frame — at $247.8 million the best four days in the history of the movie biz. Last year, the “Shrek 2” soph sesh led with $95.6 million, followed by the $85.8 million opening for “The Day After Tomorrow.”

By comparison, this weekend was bigger than last year’s $223 million four-day Independence Day frame, when “Spider-Man 2” claimed $115.8 million.

Providing additional fodder to the doom-and-gloom pundits and prognosticators, however, the weekend marks the 14th straight in which receipts have been lower than 2004’s figures. And while the gap between 2005’s year-to-date B.O. and last year’s is narrowing, the 2005 total of $3.248 billion is now 5.6% behind 2004, with the summer season (which starts the first week of May) down 4.8%.

In recent weeks, the decline in admissions, a gradual trend now more than three years old, has been used to diagnose all sorts of cultural and political trends — whether it be, as some have proffered, the rising popularity of DVDs and videogames, the decreasing quality of Hollywood films, or the polarization of red and blue America.

‘Heaven’ not heavenly

But simply by the numbers, two much more prosaic reasons exist for the box office gap between 2004 and 2005: “The Passion of the Christ” and “Kingdom of Heaven.”

In raw numbers terms, box office receipts through this point in 2004 were $191 million higher than this year. For the summer season, the gap is $37.5 million.

If “The Passion” had performed more like the subtitled Armaic gorefest every Hollywood studio thought it was when they passed on it — and not like the $371 million blockbuster it unexpectedly turned out to be — 2005 would be running well ahead of 2004.

And if “Kingdom of Heaven” had performed more like the epic summer tentpole Fox thought it would be when it was greenlit — and not a domestic disappointment that’s grossed just $45 million — this year’s summer would similarly be running in the black.

Launched the first week of May (the same berth as “Kingdom”), last year’s “Van Helsing” had grossed $110 million through Memorial Day — a $55 million difference that would more than cover this year’s deficit.

Beyond its opening weekend, “Kingdom’s” subpar grosses have lingered in the box office stats, dragging down each weekend’s total as a holdover and explaining the recent run of sagging weekends.

For instance, in its second week, “Kingdom” contributed $9.6 million to the $102 million weekend total. As a sophomore, “Van Helsing” grossed $20.7 million, helping the session reach $112 million.

All the grander transformations may indeed be under way, but they are difficult to divine solely from box office receipts, especially when the numerical difference can be chalked up to just two titles.

Exex pleased

And if there’s a slump at the box office, results are nonetheless pleasing studio execs.

“When you have three movies doing more than $60 million, the market is healthy,” said DreamWorks distrib prexy Jim Tharp. “Last year everyone was shocked when two did that.”

“Madagascar’s” $47 million three-day figure was on par with the $47.6 million score for last fall’s “Shark Tale” and ahead of the $42.3 million bow for the original “Shrek.”

As expected, the toon claimed largely family biz; according to studio exit polls, tykes under 12 and their parents made up 60% of the aud. Tharp noted the pic especially clicked with kids, with 98% rating it either excellent or very good. Among the parents, 79% gave it the same ratings.

In the three-day span, “Yard” actually edged out “Madagascar” with $48 million. Reflecting the neck-and-neck nature of the race for second, “Yard” was about $2 million ahead of “Madagascar” on Friday, but the toon surged on Saturday and made up the difference through the rest of the weekend.

“Yard” is now Sandler’s biggest opener, passing the $42 million bow for “Anger Management,” and is a new best for MTV Films, which produced the film along with Sandler’s Happy Madison and helmer Peter Segal’s Callahan Filmworks banners.

“We’re obviously very happy with this,” said Par distrib topper Wayne Lewellen. “It’s on the high end of the range we were looking at.”

Surveys showed the pic played to auds 56% under age 25 and about 54% male, which is surprisingly low given the pic’s football theme and its virtually all-guy cast.

In fourth place for the frame was New Line’s “Monster-in-Law” with $11.1 million. Cume on the Jennifer Lopez-Jane Fonda laffer is now $60.7 million.

Universal’s “Kicking & Screaming,” also in its third week, was No. 5 with $6.6 million.

Adults head to movies

Fare aimed at adults was especially sturdy for the frame. Coming in at No. 6 in its third week, Lions Gate’s “Crash” earned $6 million over the four-day span. Comparing just the three-day perf, pic was off just 15% against last week. Cume on the Paul Haggis-helmed drama is $36.1 million.

Likewise, in the seventh spot, U’s “The Interpreter” was down only 10% in its sixth week, padding its receipts by $2.6 million. Nicole Kidman-Sean Penn thriller has taken in $69.2 million.

In preparation for its opening this Friday, U held 761 sneaks for “Cinderella Man” on Sunday. Studio said shows were 90% full, with 60% sold out. According to surveys, audience was primarily adult (71% over age 35) and 54% male. Aud ratings were strong, with 98% rating the pic in the top two boxes.

In the limited arena, Palm did giant biz with the debut of graffiti feature “Bomb the System,” which earned $95,051 over the four-day span from one engagement each in Gotham and L.A. Over three days, pic averaged $37,526 per screen.

Sony Pictures Classics’ Chinese American romantic comedy “Saving Face” also opened strongly with $100,000 from its first six screens, averaging $16,667 over the four-day span.

Yash Raj’s Bollywood import “Bunty aur Babli” bowed with $310,000 from 51 screens, averaging $6,078 per screen over four days.

Magnolia’s bowling doc “League of Ordinary Gentleman” did thinner biz in its first week, with $4,300 on one screen.

‘Skin’ still warm

Among the holdovers, Tartan and TLA’s “Mysterious Skin,” expanding to seven screens in its fourth week, grossed $70,891, averaging $7,842 over the three-day span.

Paramount Classics continued to see solid results from kid dancer doc “Mad Hot Ballroom,” with $459,836 from 57 screens. In its third week, pic pushed cume to $734,129 and averaged averaged $6,117 over the three-day span.

Roadside Attractions’ “Ladies in Lavender,” in its sixth week, counted $541,799 over the long weekend, lifting cume to a hair under $1.6 million. Playing 88 screens, pic averaged $4,857 over three days.

Meanwhile, Roadside and Samuel Goldwyn’s “Walk on Water” continues to chug along. Now in its 14th week, the film earned $123,668 from 45 screens, averaging $2,125 over three days. Cume is $1.95 million.

Sony Classics’ holdover “Layer Cake” took in $437,267 in its third week, upping cume to $742,267. Showing on 91 screens, over four days, the Matthew Vaughn-helmed caper pic averaged $4,805.

In its sixth week, Magnolia’s doc “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room” padded its bottom line with $420,000 from 146 screens. Cume is $2.65 million.