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Princess, Mermaid ‘Kombat’ Casualties

TIMES STAFF WRITER

With some divide-and-conquer action, New Line Cinema’s “Mortal Kombat Annihilation” beat out the heavily promoted “Anastasia” at the weekend movie box office.

The second feature film spawned by the successful video game franchise grossed an estimated $17.5 million. “Anastasia,” from 20th Century Fox, turned in a highly respectable $15 million, even though some of its core audience--families with little girls--was siphoned off by Walt Disney Co.'s re-release of “The Little Mermaid.”

“I think what’s interesting about the gross is that it did $15 million with another animated film in the marketplace,” said Tom Sherak, chairman of 20th Century Fox Domestic Film Group. “The bottom line is that Fox is looking to build a foundation for animation, to enter into that genre’s marketplace. ‘Anastasia’ has taken hold, and the public has said, ‘Let’s go see it.’ ”

No. 5 this weekend, “Little Mermaid” recorded ticket sales of $5.8 million, bringing its re-release total to $18.1 million. It grossed $84.4 million in 1989, sparking the current animation boom.

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Since then, Disney has dominated animation with blockbuster films like “Beauty and the Beast” (1991) and “The Lion King” (1994). More recent entries such as “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” and this year’s “Hercules” opened to grosses of about $21 million.

If the style and marketing of “Anastasia” seemed Disney-esque, that was no mistake, Sherak said.

“The one thing Disney has done is they have laid down a formula for creating events out of an animated movie,” he said. “We looked at that formula, watched it and said if we do that and the movie works, we can do very well. . . . Why not imitate success?”

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But while girls were choosing between a mermaid and a princess, boys were flocking to see “Mortal Kombat’s” martial-arts action.

“What ‘Anastasia’ didn’t get, we did,” said Al Shapiro, president of domestic distribution for New Line. “The audience is mostly people who are fans of the franchise. The first [film] didn’t disappoint them, and they came back.”

The first “Mortal Kombat” film came out in 1995 to a $22.4-million opening and eventually grossed $70.5 million.

Also brightening New Line’s weekend was “The Sweet Hereafter,” as director Atom Egoyan’s adaptation of the Russell Banks novel grossed $80,000 on only five screens after good reviews. “Hereafter,” about a small town’s reaction to a horrible school bus accident, was released by Fine Line, a subsidiary of New Line.

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“John Grisham’s The Rainmaker,” the legal drama directed by Francis Ford Coppola, sold $11 million in tickets, the third-highest weekend return. The Paramount Pictures release had competition from Universal’s thriller “The Jackal,” which took in $9 million in its second weekend, dropping from the top spot last week to No. 4.

Warner Bros.’ “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil,” based on the long-running bestseller, placed sixth with $5.2 million. The film, directed by Clint Eastwood and starring Kevin Spacey and John Cusack, is showing on 824 screens, in contrast to the 2,000-plus screens for the week’s other new releases.

Still, the film’s first-weekend showing seemed low to John Krier, the president of Exhibitor Relations Co., which tracks box-office data. “There’s just too much competition in the top four,” he said.

Other films in the Top 10 were Sony/TriStar’s “Starship Troopers,” in seventh with a gross of $5 million, off 50% from the preceding weekend, even though it is still playing on 2,822 screens; Gramercy’s comedy “Bean,” eighth, at $4 million; Warner Bros.’ comedy “The Man Who Knew Too Little,” starring Bill Murray, ninth, at $3 million; and Sony/Columbia’s “I Know What You Did Last Summer,” 10th, $2.8 million.

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