Election Central for the early returns on "Alien" over the weekend was the breakfast counter on the third floor of the Hollywood Hills home of Ashley Boone, senior vice president for domestic marketing at 20th Century-Fox.
By 7:45 Sunday morning, Boone, dressed in tan jeans and a checked shirt, was chain-smoking, drinking coffee from an "Ashley" mug and working two phones - often simultaneously. One had been installed two weeks earlier especially for this occasion.
Two hours before, Celese L'Esperance, secretary to Fox distribution chief Peter Myers, had spoken to the precincts. She had talked to the more than two dozen sales offices Fox maintains around the country tabulating the latest grosses for "Alien."
The $10-million science-fiction thriller opened Friday at 91 theaters around the country.
By 12:30 Sunday, Boone had received L'Esperance's report and in turn passed it on to: Fox President Alan Ladd Jr. (whom he spoke with for an hour and 35 minutes); two of the film's producers, Gordon Carroll and Walter Hill; Peter Myers; the picture's director, Ridley Scott; Fox Advertising Vice President David Weitzner; Production Vice President Paula Weinstein; assorted theater owners and managers, and the sons of Fox Chairman Dennis Stanfill (who was out jogging).
His message to all was the same; We have a winner.
But the cautious and experienced executive wasn't about to say how big a winner. Not yet. This was Election Central, all right, and the mood was buoyant. Problem was, there was no opponent to concede defeat.
What was happening at Boone's house Sunday morning was a pure expression of the movie business as Business. The film was finished, the marketing strategy set and millions of dollars invested. Everyone concerned wanted to know if it would pay off.
For a film of this sort, the information could have waited until Tuesday morning when the long holiday week-end would be over.
"But when the grosses are this big," Boone said, "you want to let everyone know."
Some numbers: for the first four days of release at 91 theaters, "Alien" grossed $3,522,851. That averages out to $38,709 per theater - for four days, which is phenomenal.
The movie played for 36 hours without interruption when it opened a the Egyptian Theater in Hollywood and the Criterion on Broadway in New York. It collected more than $42,700 in the first 24 hours at the Egyptian. At the Criterion, it grossed $56,499 in the first 36 hours. The Egyptian seats 1,178 and the Criterion 1,540.
By Monday evening, Boone said the film had set more than 145 different individual box-office records, including best gross ever for a theater, best weekend and best Friday night.
By Tuesday morning, he stopped counting records.
There are other ways to spot a hit film besides arithmetic. Outside the Egyptian Theater at 8 p.m. Monday, the line twisted around Hollywood Boulevard, more than 200 people deep, for the 10:30 p.m. show. It had been that way since morning. Hot dog wrappers, soft drink cups and popcorn containers littered the streets, covering the curb outside the theater.
Boone said that, to accommodate crowds, portable toilets would be installed where crowds are especially large.
At New York's Criterion, a 2 a.m. and then a 4:30 a.m. show were added for Tuesday morning.
It was the same everywhere around the country, from Kansas City, Phoenix and Peoria to Dallas, Detroit and Louisville. There appeared to be only two soft spots: Chicago, where the film was playing at seven theaters, and Salt Lake City.
Boone explained the somewhat disappointing grosses from Chicago as part of the city's paralysis following the tragic air crash Friday. As for Salt Lake City, the Mormon church, which Boone said holds great sway over the way people spend their entertainment dollars, had not yet made a statement on the film.
The big question to be answered, the difference between a mere success and a blockbuster, is repeat business. Will people go back to see "Alien" two, three, four times, as they did with "Star Wars" and "Jaws," the two most successful pictures in the history of the movie business?
Unlike those two movies, "Alien" is R-rated. Some think the fact that those under 17 must be accompanied by a parent or guardian to get into the theater (or at least are supposed to be) will stand in the way of its becoming a superhit.
Boone thinks there will be big repeat business, pointing to three other pictures-all in the list of Top 10 box-office champs - which also were R-rated: "The Godfather," "The Exorcist" and "Saturday Night Fever."
"Anyway, how can you have the scariest movie in the world and have it rated PG?" Boone asked.
Why are so many people coming in droves so early to see "Alien"?
First, because the carefully orchestrated marketing campaign is working.
But ultimately because of the film itself.
"Escapism," is the reason Ladd gives. "People simply like to have some kind of a strong emotion when they're watching a film - fear, love, hate, whatever - and I think 'Alien' hits at least one of those emotions hard nearly all the time."
Gareth Wigan, a Fox production vice President who shepherde "Alien" through production, gives two reasons: "First, because there is a long history of people being scared in the movies. Not horrified, but scared.
"And, also, because I believe that what the public responds to, always, is seeing anything brilliantly executed. That's what happens with 'Alien.'"
"Alien" is now playing at fewer than 100 theaters. By June 22 it will be at upward of 500. If the film can sustain the kind of business it's now doing, Fox will have an all-out smash hit.