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High Turnout, Emotions for ‘United 93'

Times Staff Writer

Ever since Hollywood greenlighted the first feature film to dramatize the events of Sept. 11, 2001, the question has been asked: Will Americans be ready to see it?

Last weekend, moviegoers indicated that the answer was yes.

As “United 93,” Universal Pictures’ recounting of the passenger uprising aboard one of the hijacked jets, opened last weekend, moviegoers all over the country turned out -- if not in droves -- in strong numbers. The R-rated film took second place at the box office, according to industry estimates, grossing $11.6 million. It was bested only by the PG-rated family comedy “R.V.,” starring Robin Williams, which took in $16.4 million.

More striking than the box-office tallies were the remarkably similar responses of movie patrons. In theaters from Westminster to Washington, from Johnstown, Pa., to New York to Los Angeles, audiences reacted first with stunned silence, then with sobs.

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Filmgoers like Dana Sharpe, who went to a Saturday matinee in Houston, came looking for answers.

“Look how we live now -- it’s so different because of what happened that day,” said Sharpe, 36, who works in marketing. “I wanted to know what happened that day when everything changed.”

Linda Florence, who was at a Burbank theater, said she wondered what motivated the passengers to fight back.

“I wanted to see what gave them the courage to go forward,” said the 63-year-old human resources professional. “I want to know: Would I have had the right stuff?”

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“United 93" opened last week’s Tribeca Film Festival in New York, where relatives of victims walked the red carpet along with Hollywood celebrities. Many moviegoers interviewed over the weekend said it was the participation of the families, some of whom appeared in the movie’s trailers, that prompted them to see the film.

New Yorker Sabrina Brumer, 28, emerged Saturday from the Regal Battery Park Stadium 11, just a few blocks from the site of the World Trade Center, with tears in her eyes after viewing “United 93.”

Five years ago, Brumer was working at Merrill Lynch at 2 World Financial Center across the street from the twin towers. She felt her building shudder when the first plane hit.

“I didn’t want to see it,” said Brumer, whose date, Marc Ben-Canaan, had bought tickets in advance and urged her to go.

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Afterward, she was glad she had done so but was shaken nonetheless. “Even when I see commercials that talk about it I cry.”

Told in real time, director Paul Greengrass’ film envisions how the passengers rebelled against the terrorists who commandeered the plane.

Their actions kept the jetliner from reaching its intended target -- believed to be the U.S. Capitol -- but all 40 passengers and crew members were killed when it crashed near Shanksville, Pa., shortly after the first tower collapsed in Lower Manhattan.

Critics have lauded “United 93,” which was made for just $15 million, calling it taut and unflinching. A television treatment of the Flight 93 story had scored big ratings for the A&E; cable network this year.

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Even so, studio tracking surveys -- which try to gauge consumer interest before a movie’s opening -- showed that a high percentage of moviegoers were “definitely not interested” in seeing “United 93.” Industry analysts said they were unsure how the picture would play.

The movie’s performance was helped by the lack of any blockbusters in the marketplace. Besides “R.V.,” the only other major new releases were “Stick It,” a gymnastics-themed teen movie that grossed $11.3 million, and “Akeelah and the Bee,” a spelling-bee drama that brought in $6.3 million.

Despite the wrenching subject matter, “United 93" had the highest per-theater average among major new releases, estimated at $6,465. “R.V.” averaged $4,506 per screen.

Though the bigger-budget “R.V.” sold more tickets overall, it opened in almost twice as many theaters as “United 93.”

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Although tracking surveys had shown keener interest among men than among women, the weekend audiences were 52% female, Universal said.

The studio has walked a careful line in its marketing to avoid any perception that it was exploiting a tragedy. In early April, after a Manhattan theater yanked the trailer for “United 93" because viewers found it upsetting, Universal responded by assembling a trailer that featured interviews with Greengrass and passengers’ relatives.

On Sunday, Nikki Rocco, Universal’s president of distribution, continued in that vein, clearly expressing pride in how the movie had fared at the box office but stopping far short of the crowing that usually accompanies a strong opening.

“The American public spoke out this weekend, and clearly what it was saying was that it was not too soon for this film. People understand that it was well made and respectful, that it honors these heroes,” said Rocco, adding that she hoped positive word of mouth would help “United 93" build an audience in the coming weeks.

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Surveys of patrons leaving theaters showed that 76% would recommend the film, versus the average of 55%, Rocco said.

“This wasn’t about making a blockbuster,” Rocco said. “This was about telling a story that needed to be told.”

Young moviegoers especially seemed to view “United 93" as their story -- a pivotal, historic event that they had their own memories of, unlike others they had studied in history class.

“I would say 9/11 is our generation’s defining moment, like Pearl Harbor or the Kennedy assassination,” said Lauren O’Leary, one of several George Washington University students who saw the movie in Washington’s Georgetown neighborhood.

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In Orange County, teary-eyed teens walked out of theaters in uncharacteristic silence.

“I was in the eighth grade when it happened,” said Melodie Polanco, 17, a theater student at Cypress College who joined her sisters at a Westminster matinee. “I remember watching the second airplane crash into the World Trade Center.”

Many churchgoers were drawn to the film by the tale of Todd Beamer, the passenger who was credited with the rallying cry “Let’s roll,” said Karen Covell, founding director of the nonprofit Hollywood Prayer Network.

The story of Beamer praying with a GTE operator and quoting the 23rd Psalm before the uprising has been told and retold. His widow, Lisa Beamer, wrote a book about the heroes of the downed flight and has become a popular speaker at churches.

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“He became a hero to the Christian community in America -- to all people of faith,” Covell said. “He and the others gave up their lives but stood up for their beliefs.”

For some filmgoers, of course, it’s far too soon for a movie like “United 93.”

Elena Pavlov and her husband, Don Lumpkin, who live in New York’s West Village, sat at the snack bar Saturday waiting for the 10 p.m. showing of “R.V.”

“We observed too much that day,” said Pavlov, a creative director for an advertising agency who had watched the twin towers collapse. “I guess for the rest of the country it’s not as raw.”

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Her 12-year-old son, Cole, agreed. Looking up from a video game, he said of “United 93": “It looks pretty hard to watch.”

But for many western Pennsylvania residents who live in the area where the plane went down, seeing “United 93" -- even if it was difficult -- was a solemn duty. The jetliner crashed in Somerset County, an area so rural that the nearest theater, Richland Cinemas, is 20 miles away in Johnstown.

“It crashed so close, it could have hit Johnstown -- but it’s part of the whole nation’s history,” said Richard Rodgers, 74, before walking into the theater. He remembered seeing the plane flying close overhead that day.

When the movie was over, Rodgers leaned against a wall and took a deep breath.

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“It was powerful, intense, sad, inspirational,” he said, pausing between each word. “I’ve never seen an audience . . . so quiet.”

*

Times staff writers Lisa Girion and Claire Hoffman in Los Angeles, David Reyes in Orange County, Matea Gold in New York, Lianne Hart in Houston and Nick Timiraos in Washington contributed to this report. Special correspondent Kecia Bal in Johnstown, Pa., also contributed.


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