Weekend Box Office (December 18 - 20, 1998)

THIS WEEKEND The dynamite starpower of Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan was enough to allow Warner Bros. to logon to the number one spot with You've Got Mail while DreamWorks' Moses epic The Prince of Egypt bowed in second place. In another battle, Buena Vista sneaked ahead of Paramount for total sales in the box office year. Overall, the weekend before Christmas was slower than in recent years as much of the nation's attention was distracted by holiday shopping and the events in Washington on Saturday.

Nice guys finish first. The online romantic comedy You've Got Mail debuted at the top of the box office with $18.4M according to final studio figures. Opening in 2,691 chat rooms, the Tom Hanks-Meg Ryan starrer averaged a merry $6,848 per theater and gave Warners its fourth and final number one opening of the year after City of Angels, Lethal Weapon 4, and Practical Magic. The Nora Ephron film opened better than her last film Michael, starring John Travolta, which debuted with $17.4M in December 1996, and better than Sleepless in Seattle, which marked the last pairing of Hanks and Ryan, which grossed $17.3M when it bowed in June 1993. Michael went on to gross $95.4M while Seattle fended off the dinosaurs of that summer and collected $126.5M. The opening weekend audience of Mail, as expected, skewed more female with about a 60/40 split.

You've Got Mail scored the sixth best December opening in history and should have a strong run ahead of it. Next weekend, the star vehicles Patch Adams and Stepmom enter the marketplace and will go after the same core audience of adults that Mail has targeted. But the expansion in moviegoing that occurs when the Christmas holiday arrives could allow all three to have room to breathe. While Mail gave Ephron and Meg Ryan the biggest openings of their careers, it ranks fifth for Oscar boy Tom Hanks after Saving Private Ryan ($30.6M), Toy Story ($29.1M), Apollo 13 ($25.4M), and Forrest Gump ($24.5M).

DreamWorks' long-awaited animated feature The Prince of Egypt finally reached moviegoers this weekend and scored a second-place finish with a good, but not heavenly, $14.5M. Letting his people go in a massive 3,118 theaters, the epic tale of Moses easily became the widest opening ever in the month of December averaging $4,658 per holy site. Egypt was certainly not easy to sell since most moviegoers equate cartoons with kids. But DreamWorks ambitiously wanted to make an animated feature film with a more mature story that would appeal to adults and children alike. Though the $14.5M opening trails the debuts of other animated entries this year like Rugrats ($27.3M), Mulan ($22.7M), and DreamWorks' own Antz ($17.2M), Egypt should benefit from the holidays when people have more leisure time on their hands. Plus Egypt is more of a word-of-mouth film which means it will take some time before many others are convinced and will make their way to theaters to see it.

With voices by Val Kilmer, Ralph Fiennes, Sandra Bullock, and Michelle Pfeiffer among others, The Prince of Egypt boasts an all-star cast. The $70M film's marketing campaign has been running on full steam for months and three soundtrack albums were released weeks ago to help boost awareness. In addition, to take advantage of the Christmas season, Egypt has been making its way into cinemas around the world simultaneously with its domestic debut. Jim Tharp, president of distribution for DreamWorks, remarked that the film opened powerfully in France, Spain, Italy, and Singapore over the weekend. By Christmas, Egypt will be playing in 36 countries. Tharp also noted that in its domestic launch, about 55% of Egypt's audience consisted of the family crowd and that ticket buyers are highly recommending the picture. Next weekend's gross will give a much better indication of Egypt's long-term success.

Flik and friends slipped a notch to third place as A Bug's Life grossed $10M. Off just 11%, the Disney/Pixar hit climbed to an impressive $96.3M and surged past rival bug pic Antz on Friday. A Bug's Life is now on course to cross the $100M mark by Christmas Day, its 31st day of wide release, and become the twelfth title of the year to do so. Toy Story, the first collaboration between Disney and Pixar, had grossed a similar $97.5M at this same point in 1995 with an $11M weekend take. After surging during the holiday season, Toy Story went on to gross a mammoth $191.8M domestically. This weekend, Buena Vista attached new animated bloopers to the end of A Bug's Life making it more likely to see repeat customers over the weeks ahead.

Last weekend's commander-in-chief, Star Trek: Insurrection, was impeached and tumbled 62% to earn $8.3M in its sophomore frame. After ten days, the Paramount sci-fi film has beamed aboard $35.6M. Insurrection's decline was a little heavier than Star Trek VI's which fell 57% in its second weekend in December 1991. The last two Trek films, First Contact and Generations, opened in November and saw the Thanksgiving holiday weekend help reduce their sophomore dropoffs. With Christmas and New Year's weekends coming up, and no other sci-fi adventure films to compete with, Insurrection should stabilize and see some healthy grosses over the holidays and finish with $75-85M.

Rounding out the top five was the Michael Keaton picture Jack Frost with $5.1M pushing its ten-day sum to $13.7M. Down a respectable 28% from its debut frame, the snowman film should see some decent business over the holidays from families and finish with about $30-35M.

Enemy of the State is still going strong with $4.8M over the weekend. Off only 28%, the Will Smith-Gene Hackman thriller has upped its cume to $79.1M with a potent combination of low declines and solid midweek sales. Placing seventh were Tommy and pals with their diaper adventure The Rugrats Movie. Taking in another $2.9M, the Paramount film has grossed $76.8M to date and could surpass Antz after the holidays to become the highest-grossing non-Disney toon ever.

The race for the market share crown is getting more interesting with each passing week. By the time 1998 comes to an end, both Paramount and Buena Vista could be claiming to be the biggest studio of the year. It all depends on the time period that is measured - the "box office year" or the "calendar year". Much of the industry uses the box office year which is a 364-day period from the Monday after New Year's weekend until the Sunday of the following New Year's weekend. For 1998, the box office year would be January 5, 1998 until January 3, 1999 while the calendar year would be January 1 - December 31.

Measuring by the box office year, Buena Vista this weekend has pulled ahead of Paramount by over $3M with each studio crossing one billion dollars in ticket sales. With Paramount's holdovers eroding faster than Buena Vista's, and Mighty Joe Young going into wide release on Friday for Disney, the Mouse House should finish the box office year at number one slightly ahead of Paramount. However, when using the calendar year, as some like Variety do, Paramount can include the monster gross of Titanic from January 1-4, 1998 into its year-to-date total and discount Buena Vista's January 1-3, 1999 tally for MJY which could give Paramount the edge for the calender year. After this weekend, Paramount still has a lead of around $24M over Buena Vista for the calendar year. Things will only get more complex as the year, whichever way it is defined, comes to a scorching end.

Compared to projections, You've Got Mail debuted a bit below my $21M forecast while The Prince of Egypt opened well under my $20M prediction.

Take this week's NEW Reader Survey on the quality of movies today. In last week's survey, readers were asked whether You've Got Mail or The Prince of Egypt would have the bigger opening weekend. Of 2,476 responses, 50.3% chose Prince while 49.7% picked Mail. Be sure to read the Weekly Rewind column which reports on the box office track record of Tom Hanks. For a review of You've Got Mail visit Chief's Movie Review Page.

The top ten films grossed $70M which was down 23% from last year when Titanic triumphantly opened at number one with $28.6M, and down 2% from 1996 when Beavis and Butthead Do America debuted in first place with $20.1M.

Be sure to check back on Thursday for a complete summary, including projections, for the busy Christmas weekend when Patch Adams, Stepmom, The Faculty, and Mighty Joe Young all debut in wide release.

Marketplace: Shop for movies, 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 Dec 18 - 20 Dec 11 - 13 % Chg. Theaters Weeks AVG Cumulative Dist.
1 You've Got Mail $ 18,426,749 2,691 1 $ 6,848 $ 18,426,749 Warner Bros.
2 The Prince of Egypt 14,524,321 3,118 1 4,658 14,524,321 DreamWorks
3 A Bug's Life 9,987,932 11,193,675 -10.8 2,773 5 3,602 96,342,660 BV
4 Star Trek: Insurrection 8,310,203 22,052,836 -62.3 2,649 2 3,137 35,647,981 Paramount
5 Jack Frost 5,106,442 7,104,125 -28.1 2,152 2 2,373 13,702,665 Warner Bros.
6 Enemy of the State 4,786,789 6,657,177 -28.1 2,237 5 2,140 79,142,604 BV
7 The Waterboy 3,140,587 4,432,731 -29.2 2,242 7 1,401 140,940,281 BV
8 The Rugrats Movie 2,859,389 4,533,571 -36.9 2,616 5 1,093 76,828,697 Paramount
9 Psycho 1,928,920 3,770,835 -48.8 2,324 3 830 18,472,925 Universal
10 Elizabeth 931,078 1,305,152 -28.7 549 7 1,696 13,180,224 Gramercy
11 Meet Joe Black 683,240 1,609,920 -57.6 1,102 6 620 42,589,935 Universal
12 Life is Beautiful 616,260 682,280 -9.7 170 9 3,625 8,043,944 Miramax
13 Babe: Pig in the City 579,505 1,655,380 -65.0 1,525 4 380 14,546,720 Universal
14 Les Boys 2 547,426 555,320 -1.4 84 2 6,517 1,735,623 Lions Gate
15 Practical Magic 525,211 51,309 923.6 628 10 836 45,702,388 Warner Bros.
16 I Still Know… 511,616 804,063 -36.4 770 6 664 37,921,855 Sony
17 Antz 487,292 180,804 169.5 902 12 540 87,016,039 DreamWorks
18 Waking Ned Devine 432,364 554,922 -22.1 53 5 8,158 1,900,573 Fox Searchlight
19 A Simple Plan 406,036 390,563 4.0 72 2 5,639 960,130 Paramount
20 Very Bad Things 404,544 863,891 -53.2 535 4 756 9,327,846 Polygram
Top 5 $ 56,355,647 $ 51,541,384 9.3
Top 10 70,002,410 64,315,402 8.8
Top 20 75,195,904 70,458,213 6.7

    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 : December 21, 1998 at 11:00PM EST

Written by Gitesh Pandya