There have been many lessons learned by movie studio-types over the last few weeks, and there’s another big lesson this weekend. Good movies equal increased ticket sales. Only a few weeks ago, The Passion of the Christ was seriously propping up a box office filled with bad movies. Now The Passion is just a single title in a sea of strength, as new, good films dominate the top ten this weekend.
Dawn of the Dead Slays Passion
John Hamann's Weekend Wrap-up
March 21, 2004
The box office is on a roll. The March 19th – 21st weekend is the fourth consecutive frame where the top ten films at the box office have combined to gross more than $100 million. Last year, those same four weekends were averaging about $89 million for the top ten. This year, thanks mostly to The Passion of the Christ, those four weekends average about $120 million, $30 million ahead of where things were last year. The Passion cooled off a bit this time around, but the box office didn’t wilt. Three strong openers propelled the box office into the stratosphere, as Dawn of the Dead, Taking Lives and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind opened strongly this weekend.
For the first time in three weekends, we have a film on top that doesn’t star Jesus Christ. Pop culture once again rules the box office as Dawn of the Dead started strongly this weekend, finishing first with an excellent $27.3 million. Dawn is the second biggest March 2004 opener, behind only Starsky and Hutch’s $28.1 million start. With five holdovers still on 2900+ screens, Universal was only able to secure 2,744 venues for the inspired remake, and the horror flick pulled a better than decent screen average of $9,954. By far the best news for Universal and production companies Strike Entertainment and New Amsterdam Entertainment is that the production budget of $26 million has already been overtaken by the weekend gross. Sequel possibilities are endless, and the embrace from critics for this film (78% fresh at RottenTomatoes) ensures a follow up. So where is Dawn of the Dead headed? While probably not possessing the same potential as the critically embraced The Ring (open $15 million, total domestic $128.9 million), Dawn should do better than the remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, which opened to a similar $28.1 million and grossed $80.2 million. Check back to this column next weekend, where we will have a better idea whether Dawn is $100 million bound.
For the first time in almost a month, The Passion of the Christ is not the number one film at the box office. Mel Gibson’s religious monstrosity fell 40% this weekend to $19.2 million. The total now has reached a burning-bush-like $295.3 million, good for a top 20 spot on the top grossing films of all time list. While the 40% drop seems large, it really isn’t for a film that has sold almost $300 million in movie tickets. The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King dropped 50% in its fourth weekend to $14.2 million. Spider-Man dropped 37% in its fourth frame. The phenomenon has passed and now The Passion is behaving more like a movie with a built-in audience that has digested the project. It should gross $10 million plus over Easter Weekend, so $375 million in first-run sales isn’t out of the question.
Third spot this weekend goes to opener number two and a better choice for Angelina Jolie than Beyond Borders in Taking Lives. From Village Roadshow and Warner Bros., Taking Lives is a thriller in the format of Se7en, and quite a few filmgoers bought in to its slick ad campaign and stylish look. Taking Lives grossed $11.4 million from 2,705 venues, and carried a venue average of $4,218. The thriller is Jolie’s first real hit since the first Tomb Raider movie in 2001. The actress appeared in four consecutive dogs since then: Original Sin opened to $6.4 million on her star power alone, before finishing with only $16.5 million, Life or Something Like It grossed only $14.4 million, Tomb Raider 2 disappointed with $65.7 million and Beyond Borders flopped this last October taking in only $4.4 million. While this isn’t a huge start for the thriller, it should keep Angelina employed for a few more years.
Falling to fourth this weekend is WB’s Starsky and Hutch. The comedic throwback is down 33% this weekend to $10.7 million, as the holdover got hammered by three successful new releases. The Ben Stiller – Owen Wilson project has now grossed $67.7 million.
Way down in fifth is last weekend’s top opener, Secret Window with Johnny Depp. Too many thrillers in release cost Secret Window its legs, as the Sony project dropped 47% compared to its opening weekend, pulling in $9.6 million in its second frame. The production budget alone for the thriller was $40 million, so it looks like it will have to work hard to recoup both the marketing and production budgets stateside. Its current domestic total sits at $33.1 million.
Sixth this weekend is Focus Features’ unique Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, from writer Charlie Kaufman and visionary director Michel Gondry. Despite starring billion-dollar box office god Jim Carrey, Eternal Sunshine was never supposed to be a “Jim Carrey Film.” It’s not an art house movie either; it was made, marketed and released as a word-of-mouth film. The biggest indicator of this fact is the venue count, small at only 1,353 venues. In a very busy marketplace, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, a beautiful film with big ideas, grossed a slightly higher than expected $8.6 million, and had the second best venue average in the top ten at $6,333. Focus Features spent $35 million on Eternal Sunshine, a film that would have been quite competitive in last year’s Oscar race. Adding the marketing budget to that $35 million puts a pretty heavy price tag on an $8.6 million opener, but if critics are any indication of legs, this film could make that $55 million back easily. RottenTomatoes could only find eight negative reviews out of a possible 130. That’s a 94% fresh rating - exactly the same fresh rating as Lost in Translation. If you don’t like to check your brain at the door of the movie theatre, go see this movie, you will not be disappointed.
Hidalgo drops a dangerous three spots to seventh this weekend. Though the hold is good, the competition is fierce. Hidalgo grossed $8.5 million this weekend from 2,929 venues, a drop of only 28% despite its slide down the top ten list. The very expensive Buena Vista product has now grossed $48.5 million after three weekends, and could take a tumble next weekend when Scooby Doo 2 opens (whether we like it or not).
Eighth goes to Agent Cody Banks 2: I Refuse to Type It All Out. The Frankie Muniz kidflick actioner sequel also drops three spots this weekend, but also retained a healthy percentage of its audience. The MGM turnout grossed $6 million, off only 25% from last weekend. Cody Banks now has a cume of $17.3 million, against a budget of $28 million, which it should gross domestically.
Ninth is top ten stalwart 50 First Dates, as Adam Sandler gets more repeat business from fans than Jesus does in The Passion of the Christ. 50 First Dates pulled in another $4.3 million – off only 21% - despite shedding 433 venues heading into the weekend. Dates has now grossed $113.2 million, against a production budget of about $75 million. It’s starting its international campaign now, with its premiere in the UK on Easter weekend.
Tenth spot gives us an indication of how slow the box office was only a month ago. Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen grossed $1.5 million, almost $3 million behind its closest competitor. Recent releases like Twisted, Welcome to Mooseport and Dirty Dancing 2 failed to engage at the box office and quickly faded away. At least Disney can claim $27.6 million for Confessions.
Overall, box office is up, up, up this weekend. Last year, versus the opening of George Bush’s “The War in Iraq” which played mostly on TV, box office had a slow weekend, with the top ten pulling in only $79.5 million. This weekend, with only NCAA basketball serving as competition, the box office took in $107.1 million, a staggering 26% ahead of last year.