As the weekend's box-office horse race headed to a close Sunday, Disney's seemingly tireless champ "Toy Story" was tied with a newcomer, TriStar's board-game thrill ride "Jumanji," each with an estimated $11 million in ticket sales.
It was the fourth weekend for the computer-animated "Toy Story"--a film that has grossed about $97.1 million so far, according to Disney. But "Jumanji" opened strongly--despite disappointing reviews--because of its star Robin Williams and audiences who had already seen "Toy Story." Add to that its confusing title versus one that screams Christmas: "Toy Story."
"I'll take a tie with 'Toy Story' at $11 million any day," said Jeff Blake, head of distribution for TriStar. "We're thrilled to be tied for Number One up against that."
But the dueling toy-and-game features weren't the only curious results to turn up in preliminary weekend numbers. Warner Bros.' "Heat," the cop thriller starring Al Pacino, Robert De Niro and Val Kilmer, rolled in third with an estimated $8-million box office on 1,325 screens. That film competes head-on with another De Niro thug performance in Martin Scorsese's "Casino," which slid to eighth place with $1.9 million. The Universal film has grossed about $32.7 million to date but showed about a 50% drop from its opening four weeks ago.
Two other weekend openers, Paramount's highly touted remake of "Sabrina" and Miramax's apartheid drama "Cry the Beloved Country," proved disappointing.
Paramount's reworking of the 1954 Billy Wilder classic "Sabrina"--showcasing the highest grossing box-office star ever, Harrison Ford, and rising star Julia Ormond in the famous Audrey Hepburn role--limped into fifth place with $6 million. Disney's "Father of the Bride II," another remake that had been in theaters for a week, galloped past it to fourth place with $7.7 million. (To date, that Disney film has grossed about $21.6 million, said John Krier, head of the box-office tracking service Exhibitor Relations.)
Barry London, head of Paramount's distribution, tried to put a pretty face on its weekend wallflower: "Certainly we recognize that this was not as strong an opening as we would like, but we played it this weekend as almost a preview. Women are the target audience and most of them were shopping or preparing for the holiday. We think the audience for this film will become available Dec. 25."
Krier agreed, saying "films like 'Sabrina' always open slow. But it has the chance to build. . . . almost like a 'Bridges of Madison County.' " In other words, an aging action star as a romantic lead takes time for the public to digest.
Columbia and Disney were echoing London's line for the female-targeted movies as well. Disney blamed bad weather conditions in the east last week for a slow opening of "Father of the Bride."
That film and "Sabrina" compete heavily for the same audience as Columbia/Castle Rock Pictures' "The American President," which dropped to seventh place with $2.2 million. It has grossed about $41 million in five weeks of circulation. It fell behind MGM's James Bond venture "GoldenEye," in sixth place with $3.15 million. "GoldenEye" also has played a five-week run, but its overall total is double at about $83.1 million.
The ninth and tenth slots on the Top 10 list also were a tie, with "Money Train" and "Ace Ventura 2" both grossing an estimated $1.8 million.
But the film that barely made the Top 20 was newcomer "Cry the Beloved Country." In fact, "Cry," starring James Earl Jones and Richard Harris, was a real weeper for Miramax, grossing about $10,650 on two screens in New York and Los Angeles. Its biggest rival was Columbia's "Othello"--also on two screens in the same cities--which grossed about $28,000. The big difference: Othello has younger male stars, Laurence Fishburne and Kenneth Branagh, plus sex, say exhibitors.
Another competitor that has been building momentum is Ang Lee's "Sense & Sensibility." The director and its star Emma Thompson, who adapted the Jane Austen novel, last week received the nod for best in direction and screenplay by the New York Film Critics Circle. Thompson received a similar screenplay award from the Los Angeles Film Critics Assn. on Saturday. The film was in eleventh place over the weekend, grossing about $775,000 on 70 screens.
Another favorite of the New York and Los Angeles critics was "Leaving Las Vegas," a love story about a suicidal alcoholic and his hooker girlfriend, which both groups picked for best picture and best actor, Nicolas Cage. Still, audiences didn't respond strongly to those awards. The film, now in its eighth week, grossed only $145,000. To date, it has brought in about $1.77 million.
"For us, this was the weekend to open ["Jumanji"]," noted TriStar's Blake. "Consider that eight films are opening Christmas weekend. And that will be a killer."
To size up the competition for the same audience groups on Christmas: "Heat" will be competing against Oliver Stone's "Nixon" and "Sudden Death" with Jean-Claude Van Damme; "Sabrina" will be tussling with "Waiting to Exhale" and to some degree, "Grumpier Old Men"; Amblin's "Balto," Disney's "Tom & Huck" and Renny Harlin's "Cutthroat Island" for MGM will take on "Toy Story" and "Jumanji"; Mel Brooks' spoof "Dracula: Dead and Loving It" also opens.