Weekend Box Office (February 12 - 15, 1999)

THIS WEEKEND Love was in the air as new releases, led by Message in a Bottle, and Academy Award nominees, led by Shakespeare in Love, provided a wide variety of options for holiday moviegoers. While overall sales could not match last year's frame which saw Titanic and the debut of The Wedding Singer gross over $50M, traffic picked up at theaters after the last couple of weeks which saw only few new hits.

Cupid came in the form of Kevin Costner this year as the actor's latest film, Message in a Bottle, floated to the top of the box office with a lovely haul of $18.9M for the Friday-to-Monday holiday period. Romancing moviegoers in 2,538 beach houses, the Warner Bros. picture, which also stars Robin Wright Penn and Paul Newman, averaged an adorable $7,428 per theater and stands as the year's second best opening behind Payback. Its three-day sum came in at an impressive $16.75M. Based on the best selling novel by Nicholas Sparks, Message in a Bottle follows a woman's search to find the man who wrote a love letter she finds washed ashore.

Once considered a highly bankable star at the box office, Costner has stumbled in recent years with film's like Wyatt Earp, A Perfect World, and last winter's costly dud The Postman. But the successful debut of Message certainly proves that he can still attract a large crowd as it opened better than most other star-driven mature romances of the past year like What Dreams May Come ($15.8M debut), City of Angels ($15.4M), Meet Joe Black ($15M), Hope Floats ($14.2M), and The Horse Whisperer ($13.7M) which was also based on a popular novel. Message also performed much better than Costner's last romantic outing Tin Cup which opened in August 1996 with $10.1M and finished with $53.9M.

Besides the starpower of Costner, other factors helped give Warner Bros. the top spot over the holiday weekend. Valentine's Day was the perfect frame to launch a romantic drama of this type especially since mature women have not been targeted by the studios since Christmas. Fans of the novel turned out in droves and the studio's marketing campaign packaged and sold the film splendidly. Two prior weekends of sneak previews also helped generate good word-of-mouth even if critics were not all that impressed. Barry Reardon, president of distribution for Warner Bros., indicated that Message in a Bottle, as expected, skewed older female with 85% of sneak preview audiences over age 25 and 60% being women.

Stepping down one notch to the runnerup spot was Mel Gibson's Payback which made off with $15.6M for the Friday-to-Sunday period and $17.7M over the four-day holiday frame. Off a slender 26% from its opening (when comparing three-day weekends) the Paramount action pic has taken in $42M in its first ten days which puts it a little better than Gibson's thriller Conspiracy Theory which grossed $40.7M in its first ten days back in August 1997. Look for Payback, which has rounded up $44.1M as of Presidents' Day, to reach a similar final gross of around $75-80M making it one of the top five February releases of the decade indicating a very strong performance for this time of year.

My Favorite Martian landed in third place in its debut weekend with a good $11.2M over the four-day frame and $8.8M over the Friday-to-Sunday portion. The Disney remake of the 1960's television series invaded 2,275 theaters and averaged a decent $4,915 over the long weekend. Savaged by critics, Martian stars Jeff Daniels and Christopher Lloyd and benefited from its Disney brand name and from being the only major offering for the family audience over the holiday weekend. The effects-heavy Martian could utilize its monopoly over the family crowd to attract some respectable business over the weeks ahead.

In fourth place was Miramax's surprise comedy smash She's All That with $10M in ticket sales over the four-day period. Sliding down 26% when comparing three-day weekends, the high school romance remained popular with young adults and has bagged $42.6M in 18 days of release. She's All That could climb to $60-65M and is sure to become one of Miramax's top ten grossing hits of all time.

New Line Cinema brought its own brand of retro love to theaters with Blast From The Past which stars Brendan Fraser and Alicia Silverstone. The comedy about a man living in a bomb shelter for over 30 years and finally visits the modern outside world grossed $7.8M over the Friday-to-Sunday period and $9.2M during the four-day frame. Opening in fifth place, Blast checked into 2,542 locations and averaged just $3,604 per site over the long weekend. By comparison, Fraser's last wide release, Disney's George of the Jungle, opened with $16.1M in July 1997 while Silverstone's previous pic, Excess Baggage, debuted with $6.3M over the four-day Labor Day weekend that same year.

Oscar nominations can often translate into currency as evidenced by the performance of Miramax's Shakespeare in Love this weekend. A potent combination of winning 13 Academy Award nods, an addition of over 1,100 playdates, and the Valentine's Day and Presidents' Day holidays allowed the film to collect a ton of shillings. Shakespeare surged 127% and grossed $9.1M over the four-day frame to place sixth for the weekend. The John Madden-directed smash has accumulated treasure to the tune of $46.7M and should ride the Oscar wave to box office glory in the weeks leading up to Hollywood's red carpet night. Jointly produced by Miramax and Universal, Shakespeare in Love should have no problem zooming past $75M and if it wins the coveted Best Picture Oscar, it almost assuredly has the potential to cross the $100M domestic milestone.

Strapped with eleven Oscar nominations, Saving Private Ryan enjoyed a 10% boost from last weekend's three-day gross to $4M for the long weekend. That brings the DreamWorks blockbuster to a cume of $199.9M. On Tuesday, Saving Private Ryan became only the second 1998 release to cross the $200M domestic mark joining Armageddon.

Buena Vista expanded their critically-acclaimed comedy Rushmore from 103 to 573 sites and jumped into the top ten with $3.7M over the four-day period. Featuring Bill Murray, Rushmore delivered the second best average in the top ten with a sturdy $6,526 and raised its total thus far to $6.3M. The studio will further expand its release on Friday.

Patch Adams was brushed aside by the competition falling to ninth place with $3.6M over the long weekend. With $127M in the bank, the Robin Williams comedy now ranks as the comic's fourth highest-grossing film ever behind Mrs. Doubtfire ($219M), Aladdin ($217M), and Good Will Hunting ($138M). Varsity Blues, from Paramount and MTV, took the ten spot with $3.1M. The high school football saga has scored $48.2M to date.

Just missing the top ten were two other World War II era Best Picture nominees. Miramax's Life is Beautiful earned $2.8M for the long holiday weekend after expanding to 644 sites from 221 last weekend. The Roberto Benigni pic's domestic cume has climbed to $21.6M nearing the $21.8M performance of Il Postino which was also an Italian-language hit, distributed by Miramax, that scored an Oscar nomination for Best Picture. Soon, Life is Beautiful will hold the distinction of being the highest-grossing foreign language film to play in the United States. Overseas, the comedic drama has already grossed $80M pushing its worldwide total across the $100M barrier.

Terrence Malick's The Thin Red Line grossed $1.9M over the four-day campaign raising its total to $33M. The Fox war picture was off only 19% when comparing three-day periods.

With all the new releases and Oscar darlings hogging up screens and the attention of moviegoers, four holdovers fell out of the top ten. A Civil Action has claimed $54.1M thus far and should seek a final settlement of about $60M. Sony's Stepmom has tearfully collected $89.2M and is likely to expire with around $95M. Look for You've Got Mail, which has downloaded $112.8M to date, to conclude its trial membership with approximately $120M which would put it a bit shy of Sleepless in Seattle's $127M from 1993. Finally, last weekend's undercooked romantic comedy Simply Irresistible fell hard onto the kitchen floor in its sophomore frame and should finish with an appetizer-sized $6M.

Compared to projections, Message in a Bottle opened a couple of notches north of my $14M Friday-to-Sunday forecast. Both My Favorite Martian and Blast From The Past debuted close to my respective three-day predictions of $10M and $9M.

Take this week's NEW Reader Survey and voice your opinion on the Academy Award nominations. In last week's survey, readers were asked if they thought Tom Hanks should win the Oscar for Best Actor for Saving Private Ryan. Of 1,264 responses, 52% said yes, 44% voted no, and 4% did not know.

Be sure to read the NEW Weekly Rewind column which looks back at Kevin Costner's box office history. For a review of Shakespeare in Love visit Chief's Movie Review Page.

The top ten films grossed $90.4M over the four-day frame which was about even with last year's three-day tally when Titanic dominated with a February record $28.2M, and down 7% from 1997 when the Star Wars Special Edition remained at number one with a four-day holiday gross of $17.5M.

Be sure to check back on Thursday for a complete summary, including projections, for next weekend when Jawbreaker, Office Space, and October Sky all debut.

Marketplace: Shop for videos, DVDs, music, and books at discounted prices using search engines

Below are final studio figures for the weekend. Click on the title to jump to its official home page:

# Title Feb 12 - 15 Feb 5 - 7 % Chg. Theaters Weeks AVG Cumulative Dist.
1 Message in a Bottle $ 18,852,976 2,538 1 $ 7,428 $ 18,852,976 Warner Bros.
2 Payback 17,719,502 21,221,526 -16.5 2,751 2 6,441 44,054,084 Paramount
3 My Favorite Martian 11,181,043 2,275 1 4,915 11,181,043 BV
4 She's All That 10,040,576 11,652,050 -13.8 2,654 3 3,783 42,649,931 Miramax
5 Blast From The Past 9,160,263 2,542 1 3,604 9,160,263 New Line
6 Shakespeare in Love 9,050,029 3,463,943 161.3 1,956 10 4,627 46,663,122 Miramax
7 Saving Private Ryan 3,952,491 3,609,717 9.5 1,140 30 3,467 199,916,362 DreamWorks
8 Rushmore 3,739,133 1,841,793 103.0 573 2 6,526 6,274,480 BV
9 Patch Adams 3,570,665 4,407,335 -19.0 2,101 8 1,700 127,005,430 Universal
10 Varsity Blues 3,147,635 3,841,120 -18.1 2,036 5 1,546 48,190,950 Paramount
11 Life is Beautiful 2,830,316 837,586 237.9 644 17 4,395 21,634,804 Miramax
12 The Thin Red Line 1,866,991 1,912,400 -2.4 1,301 8 1,435 33,032,012 Fox
13 A Civil Action 1,765,313 3,075,382 -42.6 1,403 8 1,258 54,089,852 BV
14 The Prince of Egypt 1,535,837 1,921,629 -20.1 1,408 9 1,091 95,354,781 DreamWorks
15 Waking Ned Devine 1,278,004 1,340,020 -4.6 482 13 2,651 20,257,348 Fox Searchlight
16 Stepmom 1,277,565 2,513,269 -49.2 1,564 8 817 89,158,694 Sony
17 The Rugrats Movie 1,254,878 508,577 146.7 840 13 1,494 96,174,410 Paramount
18 A Simple Plan 1,221,786 1,367,177 -10.6 675 10 1,810 13,717,155 Paramount
19 You've Got Mail 1,170,708 2,189,019 -46.5 1,601 9 731 112,763,180 Warner Bros.
20 Elizabeth 1,084,428 538,776 101.3 483 15 2,245 22,673,802 Gramercy
Top 5 $ 66,954,360 $ 44,731,748 49.7
Top 10 90,414,313 58,206,047 55.3
Top 20 105,700,139 72,462,999 45.9

    This column is updated three times each week : Thursday (upcoming weekend's summary), Sunday (post-weekend analysis with estimates), and Monday night (actuals). Source : EDI, Exhibitor Relations. Opinions expressed in this column are those solely of the author.

Last Updated : February 16, 1999 at 10:30PM EST

Written by Gitesh Pandya