Weekend Box Office (May 21 - 23, 1999)
After a seemingly endless amount of anticipation, Star
Wars Episode I : The Phantom Menace finally
arrived at theaters over the weekend and left a Jabba-sized crater in its
wake. While not reaching the industry's lofty expectations, the George
Lucas-directed picture grossed an enormous $64.8M over the Friday-to-Sunday
frame and a mammoth $105.7M since debuting on Wednesday, May 19th, according
studio figures. That figure is a full $3M better than the studio originally
expected on Sunday. Accounting for an incredible two-thirds of all ticket
sales for the top ten films in North America, Episode
I has become the fastest film to ever
reach $100M in domestic receipts (five full days) and set new opening-day
and single-day records with its $28.5M haul on Wednesday.
But the record that many box office observers were certain would fall was the $72.1M in sales that The Lost World generated over the Friday-to-Sunday portion of its Memorial Day weekend holiday opening in 1997. That milestone remained intact as the new Star Wars prequel came in 10% below the ferocious bite of the dinosequel. However, The Lost World opened over a holiday time when moviegoers had more available time to entertain themselves plus its Sunday was followed by a day off so it played more like a Saturday when sales are strong throughout the day and night. Plus The Phantom Menace opened on a Wednesday thereby pushing sales from die hard fans out of the weekend and into the earlier midweek period. Also with all the hype in recent weeks on how the movie would be sold out during its opening weekend, many casual fans of the film may have stayed away to avoid the anticipated crowds. Furthermore, the Spielberg sequel benefited from roughly 300 more theaters and 600 more total screens than The Phantom Menace.
Invading a very wide 2,970 cinemas, with a total of around 5,500 screens, Episode I averaged a stellar $21,822 per theater. Other per-theater debut averages for notable films include $17,066 for 1997's Star Wars - Special Edition, $19,465 for 1989's Batman, $20,865 for 1993's Jurassic Park, and $21,985 for the Friday-to-Sunday portion of The Lost World's opening. On a per-theater basis, The Phantom Menace and The Lost World debuted with about equal strength. The last installment in the Star Wars saga, Return of the Jedi, launched over the four-day Memorial Day weekend in 1983 with a then-record $30.5M in 1,002 sites. That translated into a gargantuan $30,430 average over the long weekend and about $24,000 per theater during the Friday-to-Sunday part.
Episode I's daily grosses thus far rank among the all-time highest. The $115M-budgeted film now claims the largest Wednesday gross, third-best Thursday and Friday numbers, and the second-highest Saturday and Sunday grosses ever. Wednesday's opening tally of $28.5M (which included early midnight screenings) set a new all-time single-day record eclipsing the old benchmark of $26.1M set in 1997 by The Lost World's opening weekend Sunday. Thursday's $12.3M trailed Independence Day's $17.3M and Men in Black's $14.2M. The Phantom Menace's $18.5M Friday ranks behind The Lost World's $21.6M and Batman Forever's $20M, while the Saturday and Sunday tallies of $24.4M and $21.9M stand second behind The Lost World's daily figures of $24.4M and $26.1M, respectively, from its premiere weekend.
Fox's final daily grosses for the opening five-day weekend of Star Wars Episode I are as follows : Wednesday - $28,542,349; Thursday - $12,307,918; Friday - $18,467,513; Saturday - $24,414,123; and Sunday - $21,929,334. The Friday-to-Sunday final weekend gross came in at $64,810,970 while the complete five-day haul was $105,661,237.
The opening weekend performance of Star Wars Episode I left many in the industry wondering whether or not it was a disappointment. Did the much-hyped extravaganza fail to reach the heights that it should have? Or were analysts being foolishly overoptimistic making bloated predictions that no film could ever achieve? Probably a little of both. Because Star Wars films have always done major damage to the cash registers, the standards were raised for this episode, the first new story in 16 years. The Phantom Menace had fans camped out for weeks in order to buy tickets and 121 theaters were playing the movie 24 hours-a-day this weekend so as to satisfy initial demand. These conditions caused some to project huge grosses of $140M or more over the five-day period.
With the opening weekend now history, midweek sales and the upcoming Memorial Day holiday frame will give a much better indication of how Episode I will play out over the long run. Fan reaction has been mostly positive with Fox reporting that exit poll audiences are giving the prequel high marks. But many of the more devoted Star Wars fans have not approved of the acting, character development, excessive use of special effects, and the digital sidekick Jar Jar Binks who most find annoying. Critics have published mixed reviews over the last few weeks but Phantom's fate truly rests in the hands of the fans. If they enjoy the picture they will come back for another show and recommend it to friends. If not, then steady erosion awaits.
Competitors trying to program around the force of Anakin Skywalker and company did not see any promising results. Other action and special effects films saw declines larger than in previous weeks. Female-skewing pictures like The Love Letter, A Midsummer Night's Dream, and even the Oscar-winning Shakespeare in Love (which introduced a new "Make Love, Not War" ad campaign to combat Star Wars this weekend) attracted little traffic.
After a two-week reign atop the charts, The Mummy put on a gown and took the bridesmaid spot with $13.8M. Dropping 45%, the Universal release was hit by incoming Phantom Menace business but still managed to elevate its 17-day cume to a robust $100.2M. The Brendan Fraser horror-adventure climbed past the $100M mark on Sunday and should eventually reach about $130M. The Mummy became the fourth release of 1999 to join the blockbuster club after The Matrix, Analyze This, and Star Wars Episode I.
Fox's continent-hopping caper pic Entrapment slid one notch to the bronze medal spot with $6.3M. The Sean Connery-Catherine Zeta-Jones action movie was off 31% and saw its loot increase to $59.9M. Entrapment also tried to capture some of the Star Wars spillover business and experienced one of the lowest dropoffs in the top ten.
The Matrix shot up a fourth place finish with $2.9M pushing its cume to a blockbuster $149.5M. The Warner Bros. film's 37% decline was the largest in its two month run at the box office.
DreamWorks tried counterprogramming Star Wars with the romance The Love Letter starring Kate Capshaw, Tom Selleck, and Ellen Degeneres but saw only mild interest from consumers. Collecting an estimated $2.7M from only 769 locations, the film averaged $3,502 per theater and ranked fifth overall at the box office. The studio's distribution president, Jim Tharp, noted that the audience was about 70% female.
Falling 39% to sixth place was the update of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream which grossed $2.6M in its second try with moviegoers. With a mild $8.2M in ten days, the romantic comedy aimed at mature women looking for an alternative to Star Wars did not take advantage of the boost in theatrical traffic this weekend as its decline indicated not-so-strong interest from moviegoers. The Fox Searchlight title, produced for about $14M, looks to conclude its run with $13-15M.
Enjoying the lowest depreciation in the top ten Fox's Never Been Kissed smooched up $1.7M. Off 30%, the Drew Barrymore high school tale was the only film in wide release that specifically targeted younger females and in turn saw the least disruption from the Phantom footprint.
Tumbling 63% to eighth place was the Jet Li action pic Black Mask with $1.7M. Packing martial arts and science fiction, the Artisan release of the 1996 Hong Kong film has grossed $7.3M in ten days and should reach $9-10M before finding a wider audience on home video. Eddie Murphy's comedy Life took in $1.6M and reached a cume of $57.5M. Paramount's Election rounded out the top ten with $1.5M giving it $9.2M in ticket sales from voters.
October Films' Trippin' and MGM's Tea With Mussolini both fell out of the top ten over the weekend. Opening in limited release, the documentary Trekkies, about the lives of obsessed Star Trek fans, beamed up only $125,636 in 339 theaters. The Paramount Classics film averaged a horrendous $371 per ship. Fine Line's Beseiged, directed by Bernardo Bertolucci, averaged a good $4,425 in 36 locations for a weekend gross of $159,289.
Compared to projections, Star Wars Episode I opened below my forecasts of $85M for the three-day and $130M for the five-day.
Read what fans from around the world have said about the box office potential of Star Wars : Episode I in Box Office Guru's Phantom Menace Reader Forum which ran from May 1-19.
Take this week's NEW Reader Survey on Notting Hill starring Julia Roberts. In last week's survey, readers were asked which of five films had the most surprising box office performance this year. Of 1,896 responses, 29% chose The Matrix, 25% selected She's All That, 20% said Analyze This, 17% picked The Mummy, and 8% voted for Life is Beautiful.
The top ten films grossed $99.5M which was up 5% from last year when Godzilla opened at number one with $44M over the Friday-to-Sunday portion of the Memorial Day weekend frame, and down 8% from 1997 when The Lost World smashed every record with a $72.1M launch over the similar portion of its holiday weekend.
Be sure to check back on Thursday for a complete summary, including projections, for the Memorial Day holiday weekend when Star Wars will battle Notting Hill.
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 : May 24, 1999 at 10:30PM EDT
Written by Gitesh Pandya