Weekend Box Office (December 5 - 7, 2003)

by Gitesh Pandya

THIS WEEKEND Emperor Tom Cruise reigned supreme at the North American box office as his epic period adventure The Last Samurai opened at number one. Debuting with a bang in second place was the dancing pic Honey. Typical of the weekend after the Thanksgiving frame, ticket sales plunged for holdovers with most films seeing declines of more than 55%. Further putting a damper on the box office were intense snowstorms in the northeast which wiped out plenty of moviegoing on Friday and Saturday - the two most important days of the week.

Continuing an eleven-year streak of number one openers for starring vehicles, Tom Cruise easily reached the top spot with The Last Samurai which grossed $24.3M from 2,908 playdates, according to final studio figures. Averaging a potent $8,346 per theater, the R-rated film finds the A-list star playing an American rifle salesman recruited by the Japanese empire in 1876 to modernize their armed forces, only to be captured by a rebel group of samurai warriors who enlighten him to the ways of their ancient traditions. Production budget estimates on the enormous film range from $100-140M.

Critics were generally pleased with The Last Samurai which last week nabbed the number two spot on the National Board of Review's list of top ten films of the year. Directed by Ed Zwick (Glory, Legends of the Fall), the Warner Bros. release skewed adult male with 57% of the audience being men while the age difference was even between those over and under 30, according to studio research. Word of mouth is expected to be strong. Warners reported that of those polled, 92% marked the film "excellent" or "very good." On Yahoo Movies, Samurai scored an encouraging A- grade from 2,360 registered user votes.

Had it not been for the winter storms in the east, the grosses would have been even higher. The studio estimated on Sunday that approximately $4M in box office was lost over the weekend due to the storms, according to Warner Bros. distribution chief Dan Fellman. However, the studio hopes to find those snowed out moviegoers in the weeks ahead and expects the film to play well through the holiday and awards seasons. The Last Samurai stood as the fifteenth, and most likely final, R-rated film of the year to open at number one.

The Tom Cruise pic also launched in Japan over the weekend and grossed an estimated $8.5M from 540 theaters, including sneak previews. Most other markets will get Samurai next month.

Hip hopping into second place was the urban dance drama Honey which bowed impressively with $12.9M from 1,942 theaters. The Universal release averaged a strong $6,620 per location and connected with its core audience of urban teenage girls who have been virtually ignored by recent new releases. According to studio exit research, 74% of the crowd was female, 75% was under 21, and 60% was non-white. Honey, which stars Jessica Alba as a young woman who struggles to make it in the dance world, carried a PG-13 rating and kept its marketing costs low by going after a targeted audience. With a relatively low $18M production budget, Honey should end up being a profitable title for Universal.

Eddie Murphy dropped a spot to third place with the Disney comedy The Haunted Mansion which grossed $9.4M in its second weekend. Down 61%, the PG-rated pic has taken in $46M in 12 days and could be headed for $85-95M.

Christmas sensation Elf dropped 63% to $8M in its fifth frame and boosted its total to $139.5M. Universal's The Cat in the Hat suffered the worst decline of any top ten pic tumbling 71% to $7.1M for a 12-day gross of $85.3M. A final cume of $100-110M seems likely.

Two much darker R-rated films followed. Miramax's Billy Bob Thornton comedy Bad Santa enjoyed the best hold in the top ten dipping only 43% to $7M for a 12-day take of $27.1M. Halle Berry's supernatural thriller Gothika fell 59% to $5.3M and pushed its cume to $49.5M.

Ron Howard's Western thriller The Missing dropped 63% to $4M in its second weekend putting the Sony release's 12-day gross at $21.8M. Fox's Master and Commander was hit hard by the arrival of Samurai and fell 69% to $3.7M for a tally of $72.6M. The Christmas-themed romantic comedy Love Actually rounded out the top ten with $3.6M, off 57%, giving the Universal title $48.7M to date.

A pair of films fell out of the top ten over the weekend. Paramount's sci-fi pic Timeline lost two-thirds of its audience in its second weekend and grossed $2.7M pushing the 12-day cume to a miserable $16.8M. Budgeted at over $60M, the Richard Donner film should stumble to $20-23M.

In limited release, New Line Cinema reissued The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring in 126 theaters and collected $473,463 for a decent average of $3,758. The distrib will next unleash The Two Towers on Friday ahead of the much-anticipated launch of the final chapter, The Return of the King, on December 17.

Elsewhere, Fox Searchlight held steady in 11 theaters with In America and took in $143,380 for a strong $13,035 average and $471,347 cume. Pic expands to 50 runs on Friday. William H. Macy title The Cooler won $75,699 from 11 theaters giving the Lions Gate film a $6,882 average and $291,603 total. Focus collected $502,327 from 74 houses for 21 Grams for a solid $6,788 average and $2.4M cume.

The top ten films grossed $85.3M which was up 34% from last year when Die Another Day reclaimed number one in its third frame with $12.8M; and up 5% from 2001 when Ocean's Eleven opened in the top spot with $38.1M.

Compared to projections, The Last Samurai did not reach my $32M forecast while Honey surged past my $9M prediction.

Take this week's NEW Reader Survey on the screener ban issue. In last week's survey, readers were asked whether Elf would reach $200M. Of 1,756 responses, 68% said Yes while 32% voted No.

For a review of The Last Samurai, visit The Chief Report.

Be sure to check back on Thursday for a complete summary, including projections, for next weekend when Something's Gotta Give, Stuck On You, and Love Don't Cost A Thing all open.

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

# Title Dec. 5 - 7 Nov. 28 - 30 % Chg. Theaters Weeks AVG Cumulative Distributor
1 The Last Samurai $ 24,271,354 2,908 1 $ 8,346 $ 24,271,354 Warner Bros.
2 Honey 12,856,040 1,942 1 6,620 12,856,040 Universal
3 The Haunted Mansion 9,394,185 24,278,410 -61.3 3,122 2 3,009 45,974,409 Buena Vista
4 Elf 8,026,797 21,649,842 -62.9 3,119 5 2,574 139,527,719 New Line
5 The Cat in the Hat 7,141,855 24,459,685 -70.8 3,409 3 2,095 85,297,270 Universal
6 Bad Santa 7,014,010 12,292,952 -42.9 2,091 2 3,354 27,138,311 Miramax
7 Gothika 5,250,356 12,868,471 -59.2 2,205 3 2,381 49,545,578 Warner Bros.
8 The Missing 4,034,563 10,833,633 -62.8 2,756 2 1,464 21,805,272 Sony
9 Master and Commander 3,722,008 12,048,731 -69.1 2,344 4 1,588 72,555,668 Fox
10 Love Actually 3,561,360 8,218,630 -56.7 1,672 5 2,130 48,743,275 Universal
11 Timeline 2,729,568 8,440,629 -67.7 2,787 2 979 16,797,982 Paramount
12 The Matrix Revolutions 1,352,380 4,787,326 -71.8 1,257 5 1,076 135,673,369 Warner Bros.
13 Brother Bear 1,259,466 4,872,344 -74.2 1,616 7 779 79,475,621 Buena Vista
14 Mystic River 622,480 1,610,234 -61.3 505 9 1,233 51,900,754 Warner Bros.
15 Looney Tunes: Back in Action 531,429 2,507,465 -78.8 1,010 4 526 19,435,770 Warner Bros.
16 21 Grams 502,327 988,321 -49.2 74 3 6,788 2,388,710 Focus
17 LOTR: The Fellowship of the Ring 473,463 126 1 3,758 313,837,577 New Line
18 Radio 401,494 1,705,022 -76.5 515 7 780 50,607,991 Sony
19 Kal Ho Naa Ho 303,623 758,211 -60.0 51 2 5,953 1,468,203 Yash Raj Films
20 Lost in Translation 283,758 544,363 -47.9 156 13 1,819 29,310,562 Focus
Top 5 $ 61,690,231 $ 95,549,360 -35.4
Top 10 85,272,528 139,963,327 -39.1
Top 20 93,732,516 155,199,174 -39.6
Top 20 vs. 2002 93,732,516 76,653,371 22.3

Last Updated : December 9, 2003 at 12:00AM EST

Gitesh Pandya can be seen each Friday on "The Biz" airing at 12:30pm and 9:30pm ET on CNNfn.