Hollywood, obsessed with bragging rights, is bracing for some box-office records to crumble this week.
With audience polling red-hot and an 8,400-plus screen release, Warner Bros.' "The Matrix Reloaded" is virtually certain to topple "Hannibal's" claim to the biggest opening of an R-rated film: a $58-million weekend in 2001.
Some industry observers think the science fiction action thriller is poised to grab as much as $150 million in ticket sales between a just-scheduled Wednesday night preview and Sunday, eclipsing the record $110.1 million collected by 20th Century Fox's PG-rated "Star Wars: Episode II Attack of the Clones" over a similar Wednesday-Sunday period last May.
Any way you count it, the take looks likely to be large for "The Matrix Reloaded." Pent-up demand is so strong that Warner is preempting the picture's official Thursday opening with 10 p.m. Wednesday previews in at least 2,000 theaters. The studio expects some theaters to play the two-hour, 17-minute feature around-the-clock.
Executives at Warner and rival studios have been marveling at what they say is unsurpassed "tracking," the film industry's standard measure of audience prerelease interest in a picture. Studios routinely hire market researchers to handicap how well a film might perform; the researchers poll potential moviegoers to measure such things as their awareness of a movie, their interest in seeing it and whether it would be their first choice over an upcoming weekend.
The most recent such tracking poll on "The Matrix Reloaded," from National Research Group on May 8, found that of those polled, it was the first choice of 43% -- an astoundingly high percentage by industry norms.
Appetite for "The Matrix Reloaded" appears to eclipse even that for last summer's mega hit "Spider-Man," which posted a record opening weekend, with $114.8 million in ticket sales for Sony Pictures Entertainment.
"I've never seen such tracking in my life," said industry veteran Joe Roth, founder of Revolution Studios. "I've never seen interest like this across every single group -- where a 10-year-old boy is as interested in seeing this movie as a 54-year-old woman. There's absolutely no weakness."
Dan Fellman, Warner's distribution chief, declined to speculate about prospects for toppling the weekend mark set by "Spider-Man." "We're going to have the largest opening of an R-rated movie in motion picture history. I can't say where it's going from there," Fellman said.
Direct comparisons of "The Matrix Reloaded" and "Spider-Man" don't exactly apply, since the comic book hero movie opened on a Friday. That picture's four-day gross of $125.8 million -- including Monday -- marks the record for any comparable time frame.
Hollywood's obsession with big openings has been driven by the need to concentrate the effect of huge marketing expenditures during a picture's early days in release, when studios get a larger share of ticket sales from theaters. Warner and its financing partner Village Roadshow Pictures will spend at least $100 million to sell "The Matrix Reloaded" around the world, on top of a production budget that exceeded $300 million for the picture and its successor, "The Matrix Revolutions," which opens Nov. 7.
In recent years, the industry's biggest blockbusters have collected on average 75% of their box-office dollars in the first three weeks. That share is far higher than was usual a decade ago, before studios began blitzing theaters with such pictures as Warner's two "Harry Potter" films, which opened on more than 8,500 screens each.
"Films are saturating the marketplace in a much bigger way than they did 10 years ago," said Paul Dergarabedian of Exhibitor Relations Co., a box-office consulting firm. In 1993, said Dergarabedian, the top 10 summer films opened on average in 1,855 theaters, compared with 3,345 for the top 10 last summer.
Hollywood is particularly interested in "The Matrix Reloaded" as a measure of new potential for R-rated fare. To date, the highest-grossing R-rated film is 1984's "Beverly Hills Cop," which took in $235 million at the domestic box office. Only two other R-rated films ever grossed more than $200 million: 1998's "Saving Private Ryan," with $216.2 million, and "Terminator 2," with $205 million in 1991. And not one of the 15 top-grossing movies of all time had an R rating.
All of that is likely to change with the premiere this year of "The Matrix Reloaded" and the upcoming "Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines" and "Bad Boys 2," which are expected to carry R ratings. "This summer is probably going to set a new standard for how R-rated movies perform," Dergarabedian said.
Though an R rating restricts those younger than 17 from going to a movie without a parent or guardian, some observers have suggested that many parents will take youngsters to the current round of films and ticket sellers will be less than vigilant in policing the underage.
But John Fithian, president of the National Assn. of Theater Owners, strongly challenges the notion that theater owners won't take the rating system seriously.
"As is the case with any high-profile picture, theater operators will be very vigilant in their enforcement of the rating system for 'The Matrix Reloaded,' " Fithian said. "We discussed the importance of this effort at our recent board meeting two weeks ago. So, children who think they can come to this picture without a parent or guardian are mistaken."
Ratings debate aside, Warner executives clearly would be happy to shatter any and all records, and have been stretching their film's prospects with some of the industry's most aggressive distribution techniques, including the widespread Wednesday previews.
The studio, Fellman said, wants to "satisfy fans" who have been waiting since 1999 for a sequel to "The Matrix," which grossed just $27 million in its opening weekend but went on to collect more than $170 million at the U.S. box office. But it also wants to reap as many dollars as possible, as quickly as it can.
"Remember, we call it the movie business," he said.