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New ‘Rings’ towers over the competition

Times Staff Writer

“The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers” ruled the box office this weekend, raking in $101.5 million in five days, while the expensive historical epic “Gangs of New York” struggled against the stiff competition to bring in an estimated $9.1 million since its opening Friday.

“The Two Towers” grossed 33% more than the 2001 opening of Peter Jackson’s first part of the trilogy, “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring,” becoming the biggest December opening of any movie. New Line Cinema released the film internationally on the same date as the U.S. opening and saw a 25% increase from last year on a worldwide basis. The three-day U.S. tally for Friday-Sunday was an estimated $61.5 million.

Impressive as it was, the film was no match for this summer’s “Spider-Man,” which grossed $114 million in its first three days, and last year’s “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone,” which brought in $90.3 million over its opening weekend.

New Line executives asserted that “The Two Towers” is in good shape for the coming week, with the film playing strongly to all four so-called demographic quadrants. It brought in a slightly more male audience, 55%, but also drew a large 45% of female moviegoers. It brought in the expected under-25 crowd but also lured in a large number of people over age 25.

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Rolf Mittweg, president of worldwide marketing for New Line Cinema, said the studio had made a concerted effort to attract a larger share of the female under-25 crowd, which did not turn out as strongly for “The Fellowship of the Ring.” Mittweg said a targeted young-female marketing campaign on MTV and other TV outlets focused on the insinuation of a love triangle between Viggo Mortensen’s Aragorn, Liv Tyler’s Arwen and Eowyn, a new character played by Miranda Otto.

The “Lord of the Rings” tidal wave nearly sank “Gangs,” which despite a riot of media attention came in fourth behind new and returning romantic comedies. The Sandra Bullock/Hugh Grant vehicle “Two Weeks Notice” debuted with an impressive $14.4 million, and Jennifer Lopez’s “Maid in Manhattan” brought in $11 million in its second weekend for a 10-day total of $35 million.

Miramax executives maintained a positive spin on the opening of “Gangs of New York,” but many industry observers said it was a disappointment. The film, which was supposed to open last holiday season, has weathered bad publicity that included feuds between director Martin Scorsese and Miramax co-chairman Harvey Weinstein, as well as a spat with DreamWorks over Miramax’s initial plan to open the picture Dec. 25 against DreamWork’s “Catch Me If You Can”; both films feature Leonardo DiCaprio.

Although “Gangs” garnered five Golden Globe nominations last week, its critical reception has been mixed. Scorsese’s career, which includes such classics as “Raging Bull” and “GoodFellas,” is ultimately judged by his filmmaking abilities and not his box office muscle.

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However, the numbers matter mightily to Miramax, the movie’s distributor and co-financier. It is the company’s most expensive film to date, and for the studio to recoup its investment, “Gangs” must gross at least $55 million domestically. The nearly $100 million budget was cobbled together with $65 million from Graham King’s Initial Entertainment Group for international rights and $32 million that was split between Miramax and its parent company, Disney, which will also share cost of the roughly $35 million domestic marketing campaign.

Miramax Films has been among the most successful acquisitions for the Walt Disney Co., which bought the specialty film distributor in 1993. Miramax has contributed a relatively small, but not insignificant, amount to Disney’s bottom line, with such art-house films as “Chocolat” and “Shakespeare in Love,” as well as the more lucrative teen-oriented horror movies, with such titles as the “Scream” trilogy and “Scary Movie” spoofs produced by its Dimension label.

As the corporate parent of Miramax, Disney would be forced under new accounting rules to take a write-down if “Gangs” tanks at the box office, but the financial toll would be small in comparison to the recently released animated film “Treasure Planet,” for which Disney has projected a pre-tax loss of $74 million. That’s because “Treasure Planet” was financed entirely by Disney, whereas Disney and Miramax created a cushion by selling the international rights to “Gangs” to Initial Entertainment Group.

Miramax executives played it somewhat cautious, opening “Gangs” on only 1,500 screens nationwide, and its per-theater average of just over $6,000 was respectable. They are counting on the film’s business to grow in the week ahead and will expand it by 500 screens on Christmas Day. “After the 25th [of December], a lot of our audience becomes available,” said Rick Sands, chief operating officer of Miramax. “People are going to be sampling the film until February. We believe in the word of mouth of this picture.”

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However, it will take a lot for the violent, nearly three-hour epic to rise above the glut of product coming out this week, which traditionally is the largest-grossing seven-day period of the year. It remains to be seen whether the film will have the legs -- particularly in the heartland -- to carry into January or February. “Now, they will see if they can spread the word and if it catches fire,” said Dan Marks, president of the Nielsen EDI box-office tracking firm. “It’s a crowded marketplace, and you have to distinguish yourself .... There was some good word of mouth on the acting, but there is certainly some negative on the amount of violence.”

In other releases this weekend, Fox Searchlight’s “Antwone Fisher” grossed $217,500 on 15 screens for a strong average of $14,500 per screen. Paramount’s “The Wild Thornberrys Movie” got off to a decent start, coming in sixth with an estimated $6.1 million. The Ray Liotta/Jason Patric undercover cop drama “Narc” performed well on six screens, grossing $66,000.

But Paramount’s “Star Trek: Nemesis” suffered a brutal setback, coming in only five days before the opening of “The Lord of the Rings.” “Nemesis,” which competes for the same demographic, dropped a whopping 76% from its debut last weekend, grossing $4.4 million for a 10-day total of $26.4 million.

Edward Norton’s intense drama “25th Hour” opened in only five theaters to a respectable $109,811 per theater.

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The total for all films was an estimated $148 million, compared with $140 million last year, an increase of 5.7%. The box office is still on track to be 12% ahead of last year by the end of this year, according to Nielsen EDI.

Times staff writers Claudia Eller and Richard Verrier contributed to this report.


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