November 26, 2001

Are the Wizard's Numbers Just the Tip of the Iceberg?


LOS ANGELES, Nov. 25 It had the biggest Wednesday-to-Sunday Thanksgiving weekend in movie history. The biggest three-day, Friday-to-Sunday Thanksgiving grosses. The most lucrative week in movie history. The fastest movie to reach $150 million at the box office.

"Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" continued this weekend to decapitate records like gobblers at a turkey shoot, accumulating an estimated $188 million in just 10 days in North American theaters. Still elusive, though and likely beyond its reach is the biggest record of them all, more than $600 million earned at the North American box office by "Titanic" (1997), the most successful theatrical run in movie history.

"We don't like to tread in those waters yet," said Dan Fellman, president of distribution for Warner Brothers, the studio for "Harry Potter." "That water is cold, and it's deep," he added. "We have to take it one day at a time."

Bruce Snyder, president for domestic distribution for 20th Century Fox, the studio that released "Titanic" in North America, said he did not expect "Harry Potter" to topple that record.

"No matter how you slice it, these `Harry Potter' numbers are big," Mr. Snyder said. "But I don't know that it's going to be a $600 million picture. I'd put it into that notch just below, whether it's $350 million or $400 million. But then `Titanic' wasn't `Titanic' until it became `Titanic,' if you know what I mean."

What he means is that "Titanic" set its record not by having an explosive opening at 10 days into its run, it had made $88.4 million, less than half of the cumulative grosses for "Harry Potter" but by drawing audiences back to see it again and again and again. "It was a marathon runner, not a sprinter," said Paul Dergarabedian, chairman of Exhibitor Relations, a Los Angeles- based company that monitors box office returns. Whether "Harry Potter" will inspire its audience to so many repeated viewings remains to be seen.

Based on the first volume in the hugely successful series of books by J. K. Rowling about a young wizard in training, "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" opened on Nov. 16 on more than 8,200 North American screens, about one in four. The $90.3 million worth of tickets it sold in its first three days broke the record set by "The Lost World: Jurassic Park" in 1997 for the biggest opening in movie history.

"Harry Potter" then tied the record set by "Star Wars: Episode 1 The Phantom Menace" by reaching $100 million in five days, and then smashed that film's record for reaching $150 million. ("Star Wars" took 10 days to hit the mark; "Harry Potter" did it in 8.) It also beat the "Star Wars"' record of $124.7 million for the most lucrative single week at the box office, reaching an estimated $129.5 million by Thursday night. (All of the holiday weekend figures are studio estimates; final totals won't be available until later this week.)

Pixar Animation's "Toy Story 2" (1999) had held both the three-day ($57.3 million) and the five-day ($80.1 million) records for the Thanksgiving weekend, but "Harry Potter" beat it with $58.5 million in three days and $83.5 million in five. One need not cry for Pixar, however. Its "Monsters, Inc.," was released on Nov. 2 and was still in second place over the Thanksgiving weekend, three weeks into its run, with a cumulative box- office total of $192.8 million. (Its five-day holiday total was $33.1 million).

Otherwise the story at the box office this Thanksgiving weekend was counter- programming, the movie distributor's term for releasing a movie opposite a potential blockbuster that is aimed at a different demographic group.

"Spy Game," an action-adventure starring Robert Redford as an aging C.I.A. officer trying to rescue his captured protégé, played by Brad Pitt, earned $30.5 million since opening on Wednesday and was in third place at the box office. Nikki Rocco, president for distribution for Universal Pictures, which released the film, said it was a classic example of successful counter-programming.

"If you look at the records, very few intelligent adult movies are released at this time of year," Ms. Rocco said. "Usually it's family fare. We knew we had an R-rated, adult film, so we looked around at what else was going to be out there and decided it was appropriate. You've got `Harry Potter.' You've got `Monsters, Inc.' We are the adult choice."

More than two-thirds of the "Spy Game" audience, she said, was over the age of 30. "We knew that was the film's demographic, and that's why we opened when we did," she said.

Also opening on Wednesday was Martin Lawrence in "Black Knight," a comedy about a theme park employee who travels back to the Middle Ages; it earned $16.1 million and was in fourth place. "Shallow Hal," a romantic comedy starring Gwyneth Paltrow, was in fifth place, having earned $55 million since opening on Nov. 9.

Thanksgiving has traditionally been a lucrative period for the release of family-oriented films and has in recent years provided a solid kickoff for the Thanksgiving-New Year's holiday period, the second most lucrative after summer in the Hollywood calendar.

A huge success early in a season, like "Star Wars" in the summer of 1999 or "Harry Potter" right now, usually provides box-office momentum that increases attendance at movies that come out immediately after, putting lost customers back into the moviegoing habit, if just for a while.

And that is one of the reasons many are predicting that this will be the most lucrative holiday season in movie history. (Last year's $1.3 billion is the current record holder.) The other reason is the mix of films coming out between now and New Year's, a period that is often dominated by adult-oriented Oscar movies.

"There are a lot of those movies, but this season also looks a lot like a summer season, with plenty of mass market, audience-pleasing films," Mr. Dergarabedian said. "I think there are more big movie stars in movies this holiday season than there were last summer."

Besides Mr. Redford and Mr. Pitt in "Spy Game," forthcoming releases include a star-studded remake of the Rat Pack heist film, "Ocean's 11," with a cast including George Clooney, Julia Roberts, Matt Damon and Mr. Pitt, on Dec. 7; the psychological romance "Vanilla Sky" with Tom Cruise on Dec. 14; an epic adaptation of J. R. R. Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring" on Dec. 19; and Will Smith in "Ali," a movie based on the life of the legendary boxing champion, on Christmas Day.

Copyright 2001 The New York Times Company