Fans Give Mel Gibson Just What He Wants

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Holiday business heated up early over the weekend as comedy ruled the box office: Adults in huge numbers wanted to see Mel Gibson divine "What Women Want"; teenagers flocked to "Dude, Where's My Car?"; and families still preferred "How the Grinch Stole Christmas" over the arrival of the Disney-animated comedy "The Emperor's New Groove."

"What Women Want" got off to the best start ever for a movie released in December, an estimated $34.4 million on 3,012 screens, enormous for a pre-Christmas weekend and a good portent since the core female audience is not readily available until Christmas Day. If the estimate holds, it will be a personal best for Gibson, slightly edging out "Ransom" and "Lethal Weapon 4."

The film's premiere was well above what Paramount Pictures expected, and according to studio senior executive Rob Friedman, the audience was 60% female, and most of them were older. But unlike most over-25 female-skewing comedies, satisfaction levels were just as strong with the 40% or so younger viewers in attendance, both male and female. "Women's" only comedic competitor for the holidays will be the Sandra Bullock film "Miss Congeniality."

"Dude, Where's My Car?" proved to be a savvy counter-programming stocking stuffer from 20th Century Fox aimed at the youth market. The goofy teen comedy rode to an estimated $14-million opening weekend on 2,087 screens, and even if it were to fall apart, it's already grossed more than it cost ($13 million). According to the studio, exit surveys indicated that younger teens especially enjoyed it, and they're just getting out of school for the holiday recess.

"The Emperor's New Groove" was slightly offbeat, with a premiere of about $10 million on 2,801 screens. Hipper than the usual Disney animated fare, the film, which lacks the usual promotional tie-ins to build awareness, is depending on word of mouth to break out during the holidays. Disney distribution executive Chuck Viane is basing this assessment on good reviews and strong exit polling. Like the live-action "102 Dalmatians," "Groove" was unable to overcome the enormous popularity of "How the Grinch Stole Christmas."

After five weeks, Jim Carrey's "Grinch" is still master of its domain. The expected $13 million the film collected this weekend vaulted it to almost $213 million. In the next few days "Grinch" will surpass "M:I-2" as the year's highest-grossing film.

The standout limited release "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" roared into eight Los Angeles theaters Friday and picked up the L.A. Film Critics Award for best film (and three other honors) on Saturday. Ang Lee's martial arts fable was able to break into the top 12 on just 31 screens with $1.1 million expected--an unheard-of $35,675 per theater for a subtitled movie. Moreover, says Sony Pictures Classics' principal Michael Barker, it's playing almost as strongly in mainstream theaters such as New York's 42nd Street and locally, out in Winnetka, as in traditional urban specialty houses. After only 10 days (it opened a week earlier in New York), "Tiger" has $2.2 million in its tank and will broaden to almost 200 theaters by Christmas.

Attendance is beginning to rival the stock market in volatility, with the two major new arrivals knocking many of the top 10 films for a loop.

The mountain-climbing adventure "Vertical Limit," which got off to a successful start last weekend, lost a bit of its footing, with grosses dropping 42% in weekend two, down to about $9 million. It's grossed almost $29 million in 10 days. The Christmas week surge in attendance, which starts next Monday, should help "Limit" hang on somewhat. Then again, there are five national releases due, beginning Friday with "Cast Away," "The Family Man," "Miss Congeniality" and "Dracula 2000," and, on Dec. 25, "All the Pretty Horses."

An indication of how punishing audience indifference can be was found in "Dungeons and Dragons," which completely fell apart in its second weekend, dropping almost 70% to $2.2 million. Its 10-day total is just under $11 million.

"Proof of Life," already on the critical list after its disappointing first weekend, dropped a sharp 49% to an estimated $5.2 million, proof that the hostage drama may soon be on life support. Its 10-day total is an underwhelming $18.6 million.

"Unbreakable" also took it on the chin in its fourth weekend, declining to $3.9 million or thereabouts, but the enigmatic Bruce Willis drama has already sold $83.2 million in tickets.

Even though "Emperor's New Groove" didn't open very strongly, it took away enough of the family audience to hobble both "102 Dalmatians" and "Rugrats in Paris." The former declined to about $2.7 million, totaling a middling $48 million so far. The "Rugrats" sequel is nearing the end of its profitable run after five weeks, collecting about $1.8 million and about $63 million to date.

The top 12 movies of the weekend were expected to gross almost $99 million, according to Exhibitor Relations. Despite the short shelf life of many of the films in the top 12, the big hits continue to boost overall attendance. The past weekend was running about 33% ahead of the comparable weekend last year, a sign that the year 2000 could go out like a lion. Barring a sharp reversal, the $7.5-billion record set last year will probably fall.

Besides "Crouching Tiger," several other limited-release films are getting attention from various critics' awards and year-end kudos. The Marquis de Sade drama "Quills" broadened nicely to 61 screens in 18 cities, capturing $450,000, which brings its grand total to $1.4 million. "Pollock" debuted for a one-week Academy-qualifying run in New York and Los Angeles and grossed an extremely promising $44,000 on two screens. (It returns in February.) "You Can Count on Me" is still drawing on the specialty-house crowd with 248,000 over the past weekend in 52 theaters and $2.4 million so far.

Prospering from semisweet reviews, "Chocolat" had a lip-smacking debut of $160,000 on only eight screens.

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Estimated Weekend

Grosses in Millions

1. "What Women Want": $34.4

2. "Dude, Where's My Car?": $14

3. "How the Grinch . . . ": $13

4. "The Emperor's New Groove": $10

5. "Vertical Limit": $9

6. "Proof of Life": $5.2

7. "Unbreakable": $3.9

8. "102 Dalmatians": $2.7

9. "Dungeons & Dragons": $2.2

10. "Rugrats in Paris: The Movie": $1.8

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