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Love at First Bite: 'Vampire' Tears Into Box Office : Movies: Warners film looks to be the fourth largest debut ever. 'Santa Clause' sleighs into the No. 2 spot with a solid take.

November 14, 1994|RICHARD NATALE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

After a false start the previous weekend, the holiday movie season took flight with the arrival of two record-breaking creatures of the night, one of whom travels by coffin and the other by sleigh.

"Interview With the Vampire," the $60-million adaptation of the Anne Rice best-seller starring Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt, arrived in theaters Friday and grossed an estimated $38.7 million in its first three days on 2,604 screens. That's just under $15,000 a theater, although competing distributors said Warner Bros. estimates may be optimistic and the final weekend tally today may prove to be closer to $35 million--still an impressive figure.

"Vampire," hyped by a contretemps or two along the way, looks to be the fourth largest debut in movie history behind "Jurassic Park" and the two "Batman" movies, all of which opened in summer, the busiest moviegoing period of the year. And it's clearly the biggest opening for an R-rated movie.

"I don't think anybody believed you could open a movie on Nov. 11 and do that kind of business," said "Vampire" producer David Geffen. He admitted that the once controversial casting of Cruise as the Vampire Lestat, which had been criticized by Rice (who has since recanted), has paid off in spades. He also singled out Pitt, Antonio Banderas and Stephen Rea for praise.

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And yes, Virginia, there is "The Santa Clause." Starring "Home Improvement's" Tim Allen, the family film was the perfect alternative to "Vampire," pulling in an impressive $19 million to $20 million (depending on the strength of Sunday business) on 2,183 screens--almost $9,000 a theater. For the family film division of Disney, it's the biggest live-action opening and likely to be the entire company's third largest debut ever (behind "The Lion King" and "Dick Tracy"), according to Dick Cook, who runs Disney's distribution division.

Coincidentally, in summer 1989, Disney also successfully counter-programmed against Warners' "Batman" opening with "Honey, I Shrunk the Kids." "Santa Clause" did better than "Kids" by $5 million, helped by the Veterans Day school holiday on Friday.

One distributor said "Santa Clause" was out-grossing "Vampire" in some small towns. (Barry Reardon, Warners' head of distribution, conceded that smaller markets were the weakest for "Vampire" but said they were more than offset by huge big city audiences). Although 20th Century Fox offered three days of previews on its upcoming "Miracle on 34th Street," they apparently did little to undercut "Santa Clause."

How well "Vampire" does over the long haul depends on whether it performs like a typical horror movie and the strength of word of mouth against such competition as "Star Trek" and the Arnold Schwarzenegger comedy "Junior." "Dracula," for example, grossed almost 40% of its final $82.5 million its opening weekend in November, 1992.

Reardon said "Vampire" should follow the pattern of other stratospheric openers like "Batman" and drop about 35% its second weekend. But the usual Thanksgiving weekend surge in movie attendance is likely to bump "Vampire" past $100 million by early December. A significant factor will be repeat business pattern. A good sign is that "Vampire" is playing younger (18 to 30) than older. Younger patrons are more likely to see a movie more than once.

Similarly, apart from "Miracle," "Santa Clause" has several films nipping at its heels, including "Pagemaster," "Swan Princess" and Disney's own reissue of "The Lion King." That could limit its repeat business.

Meanwhile, undaunted and unbowed, MGM/UA's sleeper hit "Stargate" held its own against the "Vampire/Santa" onslaught with only a 30% drop to $8.5 million on 2,033 screens. The New Age sci-fi epic has amassed $46.9 million in just 17 days. Even with a killer competitor such as "Star Trek: Generations" opening on Friday, "Stargate" is expected to be a factor through the Thanksgiving period.

Also holding surprisingly well is the highly praised "Pulp Fiction," with $4.1 million and more than $44 million to date.

According to John Krier of Exhibitor Relations, which tracks box-office totals, it was clearly the biggest moviegoing weekend since last July and the biggest November non-holiday weekend ever, beating the Nov. 13, 1992, weekend when "Dracula" opened to $30.5 million.

All this comes as a welcome relief to the industry after the unimpressive debuts the previous weekend of "Mary Shelley's Frankenstein" starring Kenneth Branagh and the Kevin Costner film "The War." After a poorer-than-hoped-for start, the $45 million "Frankenstein" dropped a scary 64% in its second weekend to $4 million ($18.2 million to date), and may be yet another pool of red ink for troubled Sony Pictures.

Considering that it only grossed slightly more than $5 million its first weekend, the $4-million second weekend for "The War" was a bit more heartening. The 10-day cumulative figure is $10.5 million.

"The Specialist" came in seventh with $2.2 million and has now surpassed $50 million. The indomitable "Forrest Gump" grossed another $1.6 million, topping $290 million.

"River Wild" and "Love Affair" were ninth and 10th with $1.5 million and $1.4 million respectively.

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