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‘Fantastic’ Opening Doesn’t End Box-Office Woes

Times Staff Writer

A week before “Murderball’s” premiere last weekend, ThinkFilm fielded excited calls from theaters booking the film, asking for more prints of the acclaimed documentary about wheelchair rugby. They needn’t have bothered.

Although it was one of the year’s best-reviewed films, “Murderball” did half the business the film’s distributor originally projected it would, grossing $57,000 in eight theaters. And it’s far from an isolated case.

Even though weekend ticket sales finally were up fractionally from a year ago, the summer moviegoing season continued to take its toll, beating down several new films with consistently good reviews.

“Dark Water,” a thriller that also carried strong critical backing, came in at fourth place in its opening weekend, taking in $9.9 million. And Steven Spielberg’s alien-invasion drama “War of the Worlds,” which attracted some of the director’s best notices since “Saving Private Ryan” and opened strongly a week ago, fell 53% in its second week of release, grossing $30.5 million.

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“We’re refusing to believe [“Murderball”] is dead because it’s too good,” ThinkFilm President Jeff Sackman said. “But no one is really happy here.”

The soft returns for “Murderball,” “Dark Water” and “War of the Worlds” masked one of the summer’s few bright spots: the premiere of “Fantastic Four.” The years-in-the-making adaptation of the Marvel comic book grossed $56.1 million in its opening weekend, finishing first among all films, despite lackluster reviews.

The combined $148.9 million in weekend ticket sales generated by all films snapped a 19-week streak of declining revenue compared with a year ago. Still, last weekend’s returns were hardly a resounding improvement over the year-ago numbers, which totaled $148.3 million.

The marginally better weekend figures did not reverse the industry’s more statistically worrisome trend, which is declining movie admissions, a drift that is largely masked by higher ticket prices. Theater admissions for 2005 are down about 10.4% from a year ago and almost 8% from 2003. Summer admissions are off almost 14% from 2004 and about 9.5% from 2003.

What’s also striking about this summer’s multiplex news is the way in which the moviegoing malaise appears to be spreading to films considered to be good, rather than just tired remakes, sequels and TV show adaptations. That tendency started with June’s “Cinderella Man,” which has grossed only $57 million.

ThinkFilm was expecting “Murderball” to generate revenue of as much as $20,000 a screen. Instead, the per-theater sales were closer to $7,100.

“It’s highly original. It’s highly acclaimed. And it didn’t take off,” Sackman said. He attributed part of the weak opening to the subject matter, athletes with disabilities. ThinkFilm is postponing the documentary’s wider release, scaling back a planned July 22 expansion.

Disney’s thriller “Dark Water” similarly sought to provide a higher-brow alternative to mindless popcorn titles.

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“We tried to make a legitimate picture, not a genre picture, and not take the easy way out,” said the film’s producer, Bill Mechanic, who said the movie may have been better suited for a fall release. “There’s no question, it’s frustrating.”

This Friday, Time Warner Inc. unit New Line Cinema will release “The Wedding Crashers,” a comedy that has been generating strong support on the Internet and inside Hollywood. But New Line is concerned that audience apathy might trim its proceeds.

“I think we will get a lot of props for originality, but I can’t answer” whether it will be hurt by falling admissions, said Russell Schwartz, New Line’s marketing chief. “We hope the audience will feel that it’s original. I don’t think anybody has really defined what the malaise is about, rather than that the studios are repeating themselves.”

Distributors hope that the trend won’t continue to infect upcoming movies. On July 22, Lions Gate Entertainment Inc. will release “The Devil’s Rejects,” a violent horror movie from rocker-turned-filmmaker Rob Zombie.

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“These are films that we think are somewhat immune from the malaise,” said Steve Beeks, president of Lions Gate Entertainment. “If you’ve got the goods, that audience will show up.”

Time Warner’s Warner Bros. remains similarly optimistic about its “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” which premieres Friday.

“The enthusiasm on the part of exhibition is overwhelming,” said Jeff Goldstein, executive vice president of Warner Bros. Distribution. “We have what we call a four-quadrant movie, with considerable strength with young and old and males as well as females.”

Terrell Falk, vice president of marketing and communications for theater operator Cinemark USA Inc., the nation’s third-largest exhibitor, with 3,269 screens, acknowledged that some well-reviewed movies such as “Cinderella Man” were not doing well. But she said some midweek business had been strong, and noted that fewer films had been released in 2005.

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“Every year is different; every year you have a different number of films,” she said. “If you look back, it’s up and down. The product is different, the number of films fluctuates, and as much as we would love to have a ‘Passion of the Christ’ or ‘Spider-Man 2' or two of them in the same year, we don’t.”

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Times staff writer R. Kinsey Lowe contributed to this report.


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