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'Titans' Dominates Over a Nearly Abandoned Field

Box Office * September has been a weak month for theaters, with few major releases.


Battling the final weekend of the Olympic Games and a monthlong box office slump, the football drama "Remember the Titans," starring Denzel Washington, touched down with an estimated $21.2 million in its debut on 1,865 screens, more than $11,000 per screen.

"Titans" looks to be a personal best for Washington, and the Disney-produced inspirational drama was able to get its message out to a broad audience and dominate the top 12 movies currently in theaters. According to studio distribution executive Chuck Viane, "Titans" is playing well across the board, having attracted teens and young adults on Friday and the couples crowd on Saturday as well. With little or no competition, "Titans" is the only movie released in September to achieve a better than $10-million kickoff.

September has been the worst of times at movie theaters, with the past four weekends running 30% to 45% behind last year. Even with "Titans," the results for the top 12 movies this weekend were still a sharp 31% off from last year, according to the box-office tracking firm Exhibitor Relations, with the top dozen grossing less than $54 million.

And the Olympics are only partially to blame. Perhaps anticipating a loss of patrons, the major studios largely steered away from the entire month, whereas last year there was plenty of fresh product to attract audiences--films like "Double Jeopardy," "Blue Streak" and "American Beauty."

An indication of how odd attendance habits have been is the fact that "The Exorcist," a film that is almost three decades old, finished in second place for the second weekend in a row. Now playing on 1,150 screens, the new and improved "Exorcist" grossed an estimated $7.4 million, only slightly behind last weekend, for a 10-day total of close to $18 million. "The Exorcist" will go out wider on Oct. 13.

Yet a new film like "Beautiful," starring Minnie Driver and directed by Sally Field, which would seem to have built-in appeal for the female audience, was unable to crack the top 10, finishing in 11th place with an estimated $1.4 million, in 646 theaters.

In third place, Cameron Crowe's critically adored "Almost Famous" seems to be almost a hit. Despite a tidal wave of advertising and publicity and a gangbuster start in upscale theaters, the rock era memoir has not broadened well into suburbia and beyond. In its third weekend, it increased to 1,635 theaters for an only OK $5.6 million estimate and $17.8 million to date.

This despite the fact that young Napster music swappers eagerly download tunes from the period by Led Zeppelin and Yes, which permeate the film's soundtrack. Still, when it comes to buying movie tickets, the under-25 crowd is not heavily supporting "Almost Famous." Like "The Exorcist," most of the business is coming from the yuppies who lived through it all.

Not that the youth-targeted "Urban Legends 2" is exactly cleaning up. As with most horror items, "UL2" lost almost half of its opening weekend audience, dropping to about $4.7 million, in 2,539 theaters, and an adequate 10-day tally of $15 million. Because of its low sticker price, "Legend" should make some coin, but perhaps not enough to spawn another sequel.

The sleeper teen comedy "Bring It On" has been the surprise performer of the late summer and early fall and is now poised at the $60-million mark with an estimated $2.9 million in tickets being sold over its sixth weekend, in 2,466 theaters. The low-budget, high-concept cheerleader comedy has surpassed other female-oriented films like "Coyote Ugly" and "Clueless" at the box office.

The serial killer thriller "The Watcher" benefited from the weak September slate and is hanging in with $2.3 million in its fourth weekend, in 2,636 theaters, for a monthlong total of $26 million. "Nurse Betty" looks to be a steady independent performer with about $2.1 million in its fourth weekend, in 1,489 theaters, and a four-week cume of $21 million. But "Bait" is about to be cut loose after only three weeks, with the latest weekend dropping 50% to a poor $1.7 million, in 2,010 theaters, and a wan $13.2 million to date.

Rounding out the top 10 are two stalwarts: "What Lies Beneath" has now surpassed $150 million, making it one of the top performers of the past summer. After almost three months in theaters, "Beneath" is still attracting an audience with an estimated $1.7 million, in 1,674 houses.

"Space Cowboys" is flying lower--an estimated $1.4 million in 2,006 theaters in its ninth weekend--but with $87 million to date, it's one of Clint Eastwood's better-grossing films, carrying the septuagenarian star-director comfortably into the new millennium.

The recent box office drought may be over as October looks promising. Coming this weekend is the comedy "Meet the Parents," starring Ben Stiller and Robert DeNiro; another potential low-budget animation sensation in "Digimon"; and Sylvester Stallone in a remake of the cult action film "Get Carter."

One film that could have some legs is "Best in Show," Christopher Guest's canine mockumentary, which got off to a blue-ribbon start in its first weekend. On only 13 screens, the well-reviewed comedy spoof amassed an amazing $403,000 ($31,000 per theater), breaking several records in big-city exclusive runs, according to Warner Bros. distribution head Dan Fellman. "Best" will fan out into about 300 or so screens over the next two weeks.

The Sundance favorite "Girlfight," about a feisty Latina boxer, landed a punchy $210,000 in Round 1 on 28 screens and will duke it out on more than 200 screens next weekend.

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