‘Four’ play heats up summer

$56 mil bow blasts 19-week B.O. blues

Defying speculation that moviegoers had become frustrated with Hollywood’s product, 20th Century Fox’s “Fantastic Four,” the latest adaptation from the Marvel Comics library, opened with $56 million from 3,602 theaters.

“Four’s” bow, the third biggest opening of the year after “Star Wars: Episode III — Revenge of the Sith” and “War of the Worlds,” was a come-from-behind victory for Fox after the pic was forced to move off its original Fourth of July release date and was panned by most critics.

The bigger-than-expected debut for the FX-driven comicbook adaptation about four scientists who are imbued with superpowers after an outer-space mishap also helped put an end to the much-cited 19-week streak of weekends whose gross was lower than the corresponding 2004 frames.

“When you have a weekend like this, you’ve got to question, what is the relevance of reviewers to viewers at large,” said Fox production prexy Hutch Parker. “I don’t think reviewers are writing for the viewing audience anymore. I think they’re writing for each other.”

Parker added “Four” proves auds still crave the kind of summer blockbuster fare that some pundits had written off as passe.

“Summer movies were always unadulterated fun,” he said. “More than anything else we’ve seen this summer, this has been a movie that promises and delivers on pure entertainment.”

‘War’ takes its toll

Elsewhere at the box office this weekend, Paramount and DreamWorks’ “War of the Worlds” had a formidable 52% drop in its second weekend, netting $31.3 million over the frame and lifting cume on the Steven Spielberg-Tom Cruise sci-fi adventure to $165.8 million in its first 12 days.

Ticket sales for other holdovers in the top 10 were strong, especially since the biz was coming off a four-day holiday frame, with week-to-week declines under 40% for most of the pics.

“Batman Begins,” down 35% in its fourth frame, grossed $10.2 million to lift its cume to $172.1 million.

“Batman” edged just past the $10.1 million debut for Disney’s horror pic “Dark Water,” which opened Friday at 2,657 theaters.

Rounding out the top five was Fox’s “Mr. and Mrs. Smith,” which took in $7.9 million in its fifth frame, bringing its cume to $158.7 million. Playing its fifth weekend, the Brad Pitt-Angelina Jolie starrer was off just 26% from the Independence Day perf.

Family fare flexes muscle

Kidpics also played well over the weekend, with both “Herbie: Fully Loaded” and “Madagascar” declining less than 30%. Disney’s “Herbie” was off 29% with $6.3 million, bringing cume to $48.5 million. DreamWorks’ “Madagascar” dropped just 21% in its seventh week to $4.3 million, adding to its king-sized cume of $179.6 million.

Overall, Nielsen EDI estimates total ticket sales over the weekend at $149 million, which is a sliver higher than the $148.3 million in receipts for the post-Independence Day weekend last year.

(Given the razor-thin margin, however, the weekend total could slip behind last year’s if studios revise their weekend estimates down when they release final figures today.)

Year-to-date and summer season box office figures, though, continue to lag behind last year’s record numbers. Total tickets sold in 2005 are $4.523 billion, off 8% from 2004’s $4.934 billion through this point. The summer’s deficit is even steeper at 11%, with $2.023 billion this year vs. $2.281 billion last year.

Balanced demo

Fox distrib prexy Bruce Snyder didn’t have demographics on “Fantastic Four” yet, but said they were relatively balanced by age.

Meanwhile, Marvel Studios chief Avi Arad praised the studio its handling of “Four.”

“We have our own style of making movies,” he said. “We don’t load them with superstars.”

“Four,” which was produced on a budget north of $100 million, was the biggest assignment in helmer Tim Story’s career. In keeping with the Marvel strategy to focus on their franchises and not household-name actors, cast of heroes was made up of Ioan Gruffudd, Jessica Alba, Chris Evans and Michael Chiklis.

“The only reason we really surprised people is they didn’t want to believe we could pull it off,” Arad said. “If you watch it with audiences, it works. It’s about fun, jokes and slapstick. It’s not supposed to be ‘Million Dollar Baby.’ ”

‘Crash’ hits $50 mil

In the specialty world, “Crash,” the directorial debut of “Baby’s” Oscar-winning scribe Paul Haggis, crossed the $50 million mark in its 10th week of release, earning $540,000 from 317 theaters.

Released by Lions Gate, ensemble pic about race relations in L.A. was produced independently for $6 million.

Haggis, who was in Milwaukee to screen the picture for the NAACP’s annual convention, said the pic was a testament to the fact that a significant aud exists outside the sort that enjoys summer tentpole fare like “Fantastic Four.”

“The studios have underestimated that audience for a long time,” Haggis said. “Anything that makes independent film and passion pieces more viable and makes more studios and financiers more interested in financing them is a great thing.”

‘March’ on good pace

Warner Independent’s nature doc “March of the Penguins” continued its impressive run, racking up $975,000 from 64 screens in its third week, averaging $15,234. Cume is now $1.9 million.

With the film continuing to attract strong aud interest, distrib chief Steven Friedlander said Warner Independent planned to expand “March” to 125 screens this Friday and then to more than 500 on July 22.

Among the week’s new titles, Sony Pictures Classics launched “Saraband” on four screens and collected $35,153, for an average of $8,788 per screen. Label also opened “The Beautiful Country” on six screens and earned $26,532. Average per screen was $4,422.

ThinkFilm’s heavily promoted doc “Murderball” unspooled to $61,200 at eight screens, for an average of $7,650 per screen.

Palm pitched “Cronicas” on nine screens, which grossed $42,838 for an average of $4,760.

Among the holdovers, in its fourth frame, IFC’s “Me and You and Everyone We Know” earned $389,254 on 57 screens for an average of $6,829. Cume stands at $937,440.

Wellspring’s “The Beat That My Heart Skipped” counted $96,435 in its second week for an average of $5,357 from its 18 screens.

Sony Classics’ “Yes,” in its third week, found $36,734 from 13 screens, averaging $2,826 and bringing its cume to $139,246. “Heights,” also from Sony Classics, earned $180,359 in its fourth weekend on 62, averaging $2,909 and pushing its cume to $617,123.

Paramount Classics’ dance docu “Mad Hot Ballroom” continues its strong run, earning $480,000 in its ninth weekend. Now playing 190 screens, pic averaged $2,526 and has an impressive cume of $4.7 million,.

Samuel Goldwyn Films’ “Lila Says” brought in $12,965 in its third week from five screens, for an average of $2,593. Pic’s cume is now $65,820.

Meanwhile, Roadside Attractions’ “Ladies in Lavender” picked up another $270,623 this weekend. Playing a 116-screen run in its 11th week, pic averaged $2,333 and has a cume of $4.4 million.