Paramount is on top of the world. But overall, the movie industry is still losing the box-office war.
"War of the Worlds" earned an estimated $113.3 million in the six days since opening last week, setting records for its distributor, star and director.
"This is the best opening in Paramount history," exclaimed the studio's distribution president, Wayne Lewellen, who has been with Paramount for 30 years, during both its "Titanic" highs and its recent lows.
But even the clout of this Tom Cruise/Steven Spielberg collaboration couldn't blast the film business out of its current slump.
This was the 19th straight weekend that the domestic box office has been lower than that of the same period the previous year, raising questions about whether audiences are disenchanted with the movies Hollywood is turning out and are finding other outlets for their leisure dollars.
Potential reasons for the downturn are numerous: too many remakes; too many dud adaptations of TV shows; too much exposure of celebrities on chat shows; too little effort by distributors and theaters to woo customers; and ticket prices that are too high. Whatever the actual reason, industry insiders are not predicting any sudden upturn compared with last year's summer business.
Fourth of July weekend 2004 saw the comic-book-hero sequel "Spider-Man 2" take in $180 million (encompassing its first six days). That same weekend, the total box office for the top 12 movies was $212.8 million over four days. This year, with the only other major movie opening -- the family comedy "Rebound" -- doing relatively poorly, the top 12 totals for four days was $160 million, a drop-off of nearly 25 percent.
"Comparisons to last year are really tough because 'Spider-Man 2' was a record breaker," said Paul Dergarabedian, president of Exhibitor Relations, the company that tallies the studios' figures. "But I still think 'War of the Worlds' did just fine, considering how messed up the marketplace is right now. Considering we are in this box-office malaise, it did as well as anyone could have hoped."
During the extensive marketing and promotion for "War of the Worlds," a PG-13 adaptation of H.G. Wells's tale of alien invasion, Cruise attracted a lot of media and public interest for his flamboyant expressions of love for fiancee Katie Holmes and his criticism of ex-friend Brooke Shields for taking drugs to help treat her postpartum depression. Whether this helped or hurt his film is hard to say. "There may have been some people on the fence who may have been put off by some of his statements. On the other hand, I think there are a lot of people that just don't care what a star says off-screen," Dergarabedian said. "It's not just about Tom Cruise. Steven Spielberg's name brings in a lot of people."
For Cruise, Spielberg and Paramount, the movie was the fastest ever to pass the $100 million mark. After opening at 3,908 theaters Wednesday with $21.7 million, business dipped Thursday (as is normal), but was up again thereafter. Friday ($21.9 million), Saturday ($22.7 million) and Sunday ($19.8 million) made for a combined $64.4 million, which was estimated to reach a weekend total of $77.6 million by Monday night.
"We should be off something about 30 or so percent today, historically. It's barbecue day, stay-home day," Paramount's Lewellen said on Monday.
Surveys show that the audience skewed older during the weekend than on opening day. On Wednesday, 48 percent of the audience was over 25, Friday it was 56 percent, and by Saturday 64 percent. Initially more men than women bought tickets, but by Saturday the audience was virtually 50-50.
"War" looks to have secured second place on the all-time Fourth of July weekend list, behind "Spider-Man 2" and ahead of Sony's "Men in Black II," which earned a three-day total of $52.1 million in 2002, and "Men in Black," which earned $51 million over the same period in 1997.
Fox shifted its sci-fi tale "Fantastic Four" to next weekend, so as not to compete with "War of the Worlds." The studio did open "Rebound," a PG-rated basketball comedy starring Martin Lawrence, at 2,464 theaters, where it failed to score more than $5 million over three days, and will earn an estimated $6 million over four.
Having hoped for around $10 million, Fox's distribution chief Bruce Snyder admitted that the sixth-place opening was "a bit disappointing, especially since it's a family movie." He had good figures, however, to report for two holdovers. "Mr. & Mrs. Smith," starring tabloid favorites Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, remained in third place, taking in an estimated $12.7 million over four days, to bring its current four-week gross to $146 million. "Star Wars: Episode III -- Revenge of the Sith" was down to eighth place, but it was boosted by a four-tickets-for-the-price-of-three gimmick (part of a "May the Fourth be with you" weekend promotion), earning an estimated $5 million over four days. George Lucas's final prequel in the space wars saga has now grossed $366.4 million.
"Batman Begins" occupied second place after two weeks at No. 1. With 3,765 sites (93 fewer than last week), the comic-book-hero back story earned $18.6 million over four days. A PG-13 Warner Bros. release, with Christian Bale in the title role, it has now grossed $154.1 million.
Speaking about the movie industry in general, Fox's Snyder said, "We were all going up against 'Spider-Man 2.' We were not going to come out ahead this weekend no matter what. . . . The thought of having a record year every year is almost silly, and, as long as you are profitable, so you made a little less than you did last year, but you still had a very nice weekend!"