After Michael Moore's controversial documentary "Fahrenheit 9/11" became the highest-grossing movie in the country last weekend, David Letterman's Top 10 list featured President Bush's No. 3 complaint as, "Where the hell was Spider-Man?"
Well, the Marvel comic book hero has arrived.
Appearing on 4,152 screens nationwide, "Spider-Man 2" easily triumphed as the top movie of the weekend, earning an estimated $115.8 million over the four-day July 4 holiday and setting several records in the process.
But the return of the costumed crusader didn't extinguish "Fahrenheit 9/11." Playing on 1,725 screens (double the number on which it opened last week), the anti-Bush, antiwar movie still earned an estimated $21 million from Friday to Monday.
Tom Ortenberg, president of Lions Gate Films, the co-distributor for "Fahrenheit," was delighted that the movie was no one-week wonder. It earned $23.9 million in its opening weekend.
"The numbers are truly terrific. . . . We're a strong number two . . . an easy number two, with easily the second highest per-screen average," he said. Ortenberg noted that "Fahrenheit" is not only in many fewer theaters than "Spider-Man 2," but also had more limited exposure -- both in screens and in advertising -- than any of the other movies on the top 10 list.
Paul Dergarabedian, president of Exhibitor Relations, the company that tallies the studios' grosses, said he was surprised by the success of "Fahrenheit." It has now taken in $60.1 million, despite the limited release by Lions Gate and IFC Films (who picked up the distribution after Disney considered it too hot to handle). "Talk about a shock," he said about its per-screen average this weekend of $12,173. That is "a big number for that many theaters for a documentary."
Now Dergarabedian believes it's going to be "a $100 million film," remarkable for a documentary.
"We are not nearly done yet. . . . It's playing to across all demographics. It's having a terrific impact. It's become must-see conversation. It's water-cooler conversation," said Ortenberg, who will be releasing a couple of hundred more prints this week, because "we still haven't reached our broadest point."
Many compare the success of "Fahrenheit 9/11" to Mel Gibson's controversial "The Passion of the Christ," which has earned $370.2 million since opening in February. But that movie began a grass-roots marketing campaign months ahead of release and debuted on more than 3,000 screens.
Terrell Falk, vice president of marketing for Cinemark USA theaters, which has around 150 first-run sites around the country, notes that "Fahrenheit 9/11" appears to be succeeding despite the limited number of prints and lack of marketing lead-time. She's seen previous success with nonfiction films on her company's IMAX screens and with concert films, but can't recall any "35-millimeter documentary that's done as well." The scant number of prints meant the documentary played on single screens at about 63 Cinemark sites, while 500 prints of "Spider-Man 2" ran at all of the company's theaters, sometimes on as many as seven screens at suburban multiplexes.
Dergarabedian said he is not surprised at how well "Spider-Man 2" did, because it was a "surprisingly good movie for a sequel."
"It's about as perfect a summer movie as you can have," he said, crediting Sony's strategy of opening the movie on a Wednesday. "The fact that they had a critically well-received movie that was going to generate word of mouth meant they could put it out there a little early and not worry that the buzz would die before the weekend."
Independence Day falling on a Sunday usually makes for a slack day at the box office. "Spider-Man 2" earned $22 million Sunday, the lowest haul in the six days since its $40.5 million on opening day. (That was a record for a Wednesday, but not for an opening day, an honor still held by "Shrek 2's" $44.8 million debut.) Thursday, "Spider-Man" made $23.8 million, Friday $32.5 million, Saturday $33.8 million and Monday $27.5 million.
"It's not going to be as good as a normal Sunday . . . but I cannot complain about the $22 million. It's a good problem!" said Rory Bruer, president of distribution for Sony Pictures. "You hope to have an opening week [for a sequel] that's as good as your first picture, but when you have the first 'Spider-Man' gross so much money, it's hard to even fathom trying to hit those numbers. But fortunately, due to all the good things that have happened to this picture, we did it. . . . It's one of those rare, rare moments when it's all good."
"Spider-Man 2," averaging $27,890 per screen, achieved the best ever six-day record of $180.1 million, beating the $146.9 million of last year's "The Matrix Reloaded" and besting the $144.1 million earned by the first "Spider-Man" in 2002.