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‘Armageddon’s’ Impact

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

“Armageddon,” starring Bruce Willis, Disney’s most expensive movie ever, opened Wednesday to lacerating notices but still got off the ground to a reasonable, if not spectacular, start, grossing an estimated $9.7 million in its first day, about $3,100 per screen.

It was the studio’s biggest Wednesday opening, bettering “The Lion King’s” gross by 50%, according to studio distribution head Phil Barlow.

The $140-million-plus film is not getting the same kind of supersonic send-off that “Men in Black” got last year at this time ($14 million in 3,020 theaters) or “Independence Day” ($17.4 million in 2,882 theaters) the year before that. But it is still the third best Wednesday opening ever, bumping “Terminator 2" from that slot (it earned $9.2 million in 1991, according to the industry tracking firm Exhibitor Relations).

“Armageddon” cut into the business done by most other recent releases by at least 25% (the exception being family films “Dr. Dolittle” and “Mulan,” both of which declined around 20%).

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Though Disney has been careful not to stoke audience expectations, other factors have come into play on “Armageddon” and perhaps kept the film from doing better business its first day. Normally, heavily marketed studio action films are relatively impervious to reviewers’ scorn. But perhaps not this year.

The testosterone-driven “Armageddon” arrives on the heels of another critically lampooned putative blockbuster, “Godzilla” (which opened to $8.4 million the Wednesday before Memorial Day). With their knives already sharpened, critics cut loose on “Armageddon.” The notices were so lacerating that L.A.'s KCRW and other public radio stations broadcast samples of the best critical gibes from around the country opening day. The reviews were almost impossible to avoid, particularly for the adult (over 25) audience.

“Armageddon’s” core audience of young males, however, rarely consult newspapers except for show times. And they did show up in droves for its Tuesday midnight shows, and Barlow says the profile remained young but fanned out to young women by Wednesday night.

As for a broader audience, bad reviews may not have been the only factor. Even Disney’s well-conceived and executed marketing campaign may not have been enough to separate it completely from the similarly themed “Deep Impact,” Paramount/DreamWorks’ initial summer volley that surprised everyone to open with $41 million over the May 8 weekend; the film is expected to eventually gross about $140 million.

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A competing studio executive says the trouble is not “Deep Impact” per se, but perhaps a wait-and-see attitude from adult viewers. “If the word of mouth on ‘Armageddon’ is good, it ultimately won’t matter,” says the executive.

The bigger problem for “Armageddon” is this year’s Fourth of July observance, which for most of the nation begins today. The studio (and the industry) would have preferred that the Fourth fall on a weekday or Monday. Saturday is traditionally the biggest box-office day of the week. But holiday barbecues, fireworks and beachgoing are expected to curtail the weekend’s box-office potential in general and Saturday’s in particular.

“It has to have some impact,” Barlow says, “but will it all work itself out in the wash? Will Friday be extra big? I don’t know. I wish I did.”

All these factors will have to be assessed come Monday morning if “Armageddon” doesn’t register in the $80-million or so range of “Men in Black” and “Independence Day” after their first five days. Industry insiders see the film climbing to at least the $50-million to $60-million range in its first five days, which would still make it Disney’s biggest debut ever, easily trouncing “The Lion King’s” $40 million.

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The $9.7-million opening day is very much in line with a strong performing summer film. And word of mouth from the core audience on “Armageddon” is likely to be much better than for “Godzilla,” which disappointed even its true believers. But the studio has been understandably nervous that it could be tarred with the same brush as “Godzilla” in an era of “Titanic” grosses.

Mindful of some of these pitfalls, Disney has been laboring intensively to keep public expectations realistic. The studio’s marketing launch, which reportedly cost somewhere around $45 million, was recalibrated to ensure that it didn’t promise anything the film could not deliver and to distance it from “Deep Impact.” Some last-minute scenes were added to broaden the film’s international scope. “Armageddon” is likely to be a sure-fire hit abroad. Willis is one of the world’s major action stars.

Except for its summer animated release, “Mulan,” Disney has been plagued by under-performing films resulting in a major Wall Street downward reassessment of its stock this week. Many of its summer eggs are in the “Armageddon” basket, in which the studio has a $200-million investment (including marketing). But analysts usually make their assessments in advance of news and not after it. So any negative impact of “Armageddon’s” weekend has likely already been factored in.

* OTHER VOICES: “Armageddon” may have gotten poor reviews, but most patrons liked it. F20

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