Times Staff Writer

America, it seems, was more than ready to embrace an alien invasion steeped in Sept. 11 imagery as “War of the Worlds” delivered career highs for director Steven Spielberg and star Tom Cruise and set a record for Paramount Pictures. It also was the second-best Fourth of July weekend, although 23% behind last summer’s high of $223.3 million led by “Spider-Man 2.” The No. 2 finish prolonged the box office slump, now in its 19th week.

“War” grossed $100.2 million in its first five days, and Paramount estimated that it would add $13 million on the Monday holiday, bringing its six-day total to about $113.3 million. Those numbers are in line with pre-release projections for the movie, which cost about $133 million.

Any lingering questions about Cruise’s bankability in the wake of a string of bizarre public appearances -- from declaring his love for Katie Holmes to blasting psychiatry -- were answered. The film slid ahead of the actor’s single best day at the box office, which had been in May 2000 with “Mission: Impossible 2.” (It was also the previous high point for Paramount.)

The film also crossed the $100-million mark on Sunday, its fifth day, making it there faster than any other Spielberg movie. (The director’s previous fastest film to hit $100 million was “The Lost World: Jurassic Park.”)

And it will easily surpass the last collaboration for Spielberg and Cruise, “Minority Report,” which topped out at $132 million domestically and $226 million internationally, according to figures on the website, which tracks box office performance.


“Not bad,” observed Paramount executive Robert Friedman, for a film “based on a 100-year-old literary property,” the 1898 novel by H.G. Wells.

The $64.5 million Friday through Sunday and estimated $77.6 million Friday through Monday were solid numbers, but not enough to top “Spider-Man 2,” which hit $88.2 million in three days and $115.8 million in four. The record for any Friday through Sunday remains the $114.8 million the original “Spider-Man” grossed in its first three days in May 2002, according to box office tracking firm Nielsen EDI Inc.

Spielberg’s latest movie was neither a sequel nor based on a popular comic-book character, but it fared better at the box office than any previous July 4th alien encounter, including “Men in Black II” ($52.1 million on its first Friday through Sunday in 2002), “Men in Black” ($51.1 million in 1997) and “Independence Day” ($50.2 million in 1996), and better than “Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines” ($44 million in 2003), although T3’s battle was against robots from the future of its own planet.

“It’s the biggest opening ever for Paramount, the biggest for Tom, the biggest for Steven on the Fourth of July,” said Friedman, vice chairman of the Paramount motion picture group and chief operating officer of Paramount Pictures. “It’s a tremendous opening internationally. It’s not bad to have a five-day total of more than $200 million,” Friedman added, referring to the film’s worldwide total of more than $215 million. “War of the Worlds” had grossed more than $102.5 million through Sunday in overseas markets.

Demographically, the audience for the film is slightly more male than female, at about 53%, according to studio exit surveys, but it split down the middle between moviegoers older and younger than 25, prompting Friedman to declare it a “four-quadrant movie” -- industry marketing parlance for a film that draws relatively evenly across all demographic sectors.

As for the continuing slump at the nation’s movie theaters, Friedman said, “The issue of whether box office is going to come back or not is not going to depend on one movie.”

Traditionally, studios front-load the summer, scheduling the films they hope will be blockbusters starting in early May, leading into the usually strong Memorial Day and July 4th holidays. But last summer, moviegoing continued strong through the closing weeks with “I, Robot,” “The Bourne Supremacy” and “The Village” each taking in more than $50 million on their respective openings in the last three weekends in July -- all of which is cause for worry among executives and exhibitors still hoping for something to break the slump.

The next couple of weekends, however, show some promise, with the live-action adaptation of the popular comic “Fantastic Four” and “Dark Water,” starring Jennifer Connelly, opening Friday, followed by the keenly anticipated Tim Burton-Johnny Depp collaboration “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” and the Owen Wilson-Vince Vaughn comedy “Wedding Crashers” on the 15th. “The Bad News Bears” and “The Island” open July 22, followed by “Stealth” and “Sky High” on July 29.



By the Numbers

Preliminary weekend box-office results (in millions), based on studio projections.

*--* Movie 3-day gross Total War of the Worlds $77.6 $113.3

Batman Begins 18.7 154.1

Mr. & Mrs. Smith 12.7 146.1

Bewitched 10.8 40.3

Herbie: Fully Loaded 10.5 36.8

Madagascar 7.0 172.4

Rebound 6.0 6.0

Star Wars 5.0 366.5

The Longest Yard 3.5 148.2

Land of the Dead 3.2 16.7


Source: Nielsen EDI Inc.

Los Angeles Times