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Where Art Thou? In First Place

Box office: 'Romeo,' a modern version of the love story, dominates films targeted to teens.

November 04, 1996|JUDY BRENNAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

A high-spirited, modernized version of "William Shakespeare's Romeo & Juliet" opened with a flourish over the weekend, drawing an estimated $11.6 million in paying customers and dominating the box-office competition.

If 20th Century Fox was concerned about how its unusual take on the the Bard's greatest love story would go over, the worry ended quickly when a relatively modest 1,277 theaters showing the film brought in a strong per screen average of about $9,084.

The total gross was as much as director and co-screenwriter Baz Lurhmann tallied at the box office in 1993 during the entire run of his critically acclaimed "Strictly Ballroom," the Australian director-writer's entree into America.

The weekend was strong for movies targeted to teens overall, according to early industry estimates. Aside from "Romeo & Juliet," Warner Bros.' drama "Sleepers," the box-office leader for the previous two weekends, was second with $8.2 million, TriStar's comedy "High School High" was third with $5.1 million, and the chiller from Paramount, "Stephen King's Thinner," was seventh with $3.6 million.

Opening in fourth place was MGM/UA's comedy "Larger Than Life," which pairs Bill Murray with an elephant. It was ringing up $4.2 million.

Two previous Paramount releases, "The Ghost and the Darkness" "The First Wives Club," were fifth and sixth with $3.68 million and $3.62 million, respectively.

Two films were tied for eighth place, each with an estimated $3.2 million. Paramount's debuting "Dear God," a comedy starring Greg Kinnear, was vying with Hollywood Pictures' "The Associate," a comedy starring Whoopi Goldberg, for the eighth spot. "The Associate" was in its second week in the theaters.

New Line Cinema's "The Long Kiss Goodnight," in its fourth weekend, was tenth with $2.79 million.

One disappointment was Warners' opening of "Bad Moon," which garnered only $600,000 at 825 theaters nationwide for about $727 per theater.

But the weekend's big story clearly was the strong showing of "Romeo & Juliet, the first reworking of the classic since Franco Zeffirelli's 1968 lush and more traditional version. The new release drew fervent reviews both positive and negative. The film stuck to the story line, using Shakespeare's language, but was graphically executed with gun-toting thespians in Luhrmann's flamboyant '90s style.

The audience turnout caught Fox and its competitors by surprise. "If you don't believe this remains the greatest love story ever told, look at these numbers," said Tom Sherak, head of Fox's distribution. "With these kind of results I think we're seeing the next Brad Pitt and Gwyneth Paltrow," referring to the film's stars Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes.

Sherak said the biggest audience for the PG-13 film was teens and young adults. The studio's competitors said older audiences shied away because of Luhrmann's twist on Shakespeare. "This movie has edge but the trailers made that clear. From the very first screening, we knew it would attract younger audiences," noted Sherak.

Final weekend box-office figures will be released today.

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