Only in movies can $60 million seem a failure


"Pearl Harbor," Disney's $140 million re-creation of the surprise attack that vaulted the United States into World War II, pulled in $60 million during its opening weekend.

Only in the labyrinthine, house-of-mirrors world of movie box office grosses could that be considered a disappointment.

True, that figure represents the fourth-largest opening weekend ever (assuming that a weekend is Friday-Sunday). True, a couple more weekends like that, and the film can start turning a profit. And true, producer Jerry Bruckheimer is on record as saying those figures are better than he expected.

But revisionist pundits who live and die by the hidden meaning of such numbers are starting to wave caution flags. The movie didn't break the elusive $100 million mark, they note (not that any other movie has, either). It wasn't even the best performance by a film this year; "The Mummy Returns" did better, with $68.1 million, the second best weekend total ever.

"The Mummy Returns" is still bringing in the crowds, adding $19.1 million last week, its fourth in release.

Just as with "Star Wars, Episode 1: The Phantom Menace," which pulled in only $64.8 million its opening weekend and an additional $28.5 million opening day (which in its case was a Wednesday), "Pearl Harbor" may be proving a victim of extreme expectations.

"I think those are great numbers," says Paul Dergarabedian, head of Los Angeles-based Exhibitor Relations Co., which tracks box-office receipts. "I think you have to take each film on the numbers, not on the hype. All things considered, this was a terrific opening for that film."

"I think the revisionists are out to lunch," agrees Dan Marks, executive vice president of ACNielsen EDI, which compiles a weekly listing of box-office receipts and also analyzes what they reveal. "What does it take to make people happy?"

Optimists point out that, for a three-hour film, "Pearl Harbor" went where no opening film had gone before; the previous record-holder among films of similar length was "Saving Private Ryan," which earned $30.6 million its opening weekend in 1998. They also note that, if you expand the weekend to four days (Monday, after all, was a holiday), the movie's $75.1 million take puts it in second place - although still well behind "The Lost World: Jurassic Park," which earned an impressive $90.2 million in 1997.

Plus, the movie had the best opening ever for a non-sequel.

Pessimists keep pointing at that as-yet-unbreached $100 million mark. They point to the film's inability to impress critics - The Sun's Michael Sragow called it "a brain-dead buddy-movie tearjerker with semi-tasteful romance and tasteful gore mixed in with the derring-do" - and say that suggests it won't have much in the way of "legs," industry parlance for the ability to keep bringing big audiences into theaters. And they note that there are an estimated 6,000 copies of the film playing in 3,214 theaters scattered throughout the country; any film that so saturates the market, the theory goes, had better bring in the bucks.

Pessimists ignore, however, the fact that the movie is doing far better than last year's big Memorial Day opening, "Mission Impossible 2," which brought in a "paltry" $57.8 million its opening weekend - playing at 349 more theaters than "Pearl Harbor."

All of which explains why spinners, who earn a living forcing numbers to say what they want them to say, are able to report convincingly that "Pearl Harbor" is both a success and a disappointment.

The real test, however, will come in the next few weeks, as analysts (not to mention anxious Disney executives) wait to see whether audiences keep coming. And those who believe they won't, take note: Three years ago, another Disney film, "Armageddon," experienced a "disappointing" opening weekend, bringing in only $54.2 million over its July 4 opening weekend - much less than "Independence Day" and "Men in Black" did the previous two summers. That film, which critics despised, benefited from an intense Disney media blitz and ended-up grossing $201.6 million.

Bottom line? "It's a great opening, even if it's not the greatest opening of all time, as some people predicted," Dergarabedian says. "Now, the critics have really torn it apart. If the audiences still like it, it'll do great. If they agree with the critics, it won't."

Box office

Top five three-day opening weekends, unadjusted for inflation:

1) "The Lost World: Jurassic Park," $72.1 million

2) "The Mummy Returns," $68.1 million

3) "Star Wars, Episode One: The Phantom Menace," $64.8 million

4) "Pearl Harbor," $60 million

5) "Hannibal," $58 million

Top 10 films

The top films at the box office over the four-day holiday weekend, with distributor, weekend gross, number of weeks in release (because of Memorial Day, total gross amounts were not yet available):

1 "Pearl Harbor"...Universal...$75.1 million...1

2 "Shrek"...DreamWorks...$54.2 million...2

3 "The Mummy Returns"...Universal...$19.1 million...4

4 "A Knight's Tale"...Sony...$9.3 million...3

5 "Angel Eyes"...Warner Bros....$6.3 million...2

6 "Bridget Jones's Diary"...Miramax...$4.0 million...7

7 "Along Came a Spider"...Paramount...$2.2 million...7

8 "Memento"...Newmarket... $1.9 million...11

9 "Blow"...New Line...$1.3 million...8

10 "Driven"...Warner Bros....$1.2 million...5

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