`King Kong' opens with unimpressive $9.8 million

Commentary

December 16, 2005|By CHRIS KALTENBACH

Peter Jackson's King Kong opened with a somewhat muffled roar at the U.S. box office Wednesday, but observers are still cautiously optimistic that the film's eventual earnings will approach the $300 million mark and help Hollywood dull the impact of a yearlong box-office slump.

The film, a remake of the 1933 classic about a 25-foot gorilla falling for a comely blonde who doesn't exactly welcome his advances, took in $9.8 million nationwide, playing on 3,567 theater screens.

That doesn't approach the record opening day of Star Wars: Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, which brought in $50 million when it opened on a Thursday in May of this year. It's also short of the $21.3 million Steven Spielberg's War of the Worlds earned in July when it, like Kong, opened on a Wednesday.

Paul Dergarabedian, head of Exhibitor Relations Inc., a Los Angeles-based box-office tracking firm, refused to call Kong's opening a disappointment. The film is more than three hours long (187 minutes), he noted, which translates to fewer showings at each theater; Sith, by comparison, ran 140 minutes. And War of the Worlds opened just before July 4, traditionally a huge week for moviegoing.

"This is just the beginning for this movie," he said, noting that the film has received almost unanimous praise from critics. "It's an epic, it's a big film. It's going to get a great buzz and word of mouth. I think it'll play well over the long haul."

Earlier this year, Hollywood endured a 19-week stretch during which box-office receipts failed to match those from the same period in 2004. Business picked up considerably in November, when Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire brought in $102.3 million its opening week.

Still, box-office receipts remain down 5.3 percent compared with last year. Overall attendance has dropped even more, down 7.2 percent.

Some optimists had hoped Kong could single-handedly restore the box office to 2004's record levels, or at least make a serious dent in the difference. But, according to Dergarabedian, such expectations may not have been reasonable, even for a giant gorilla. So far this year, the cumulative box office is $466 million behind last year's.

"We have a very short time to make up a pretty big deficit," he said.

Analysts have come up with all manner of explanations for the declining box office. Some say the movies themselves are getting worse, what with all the sequels, remakes and formulaic product being released by the major studios. Others say consumers are learning to simply wait a few months and purchase a film's DVD, allowing them to see the film at home, where they don't have to endure messy theaters, ringing cell phones or chatty couples sitting in back of them.

Others note that the record box-office for 2004 benefited from two films that were anomalies. Neither Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ ($370.3 million) nor Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 ($120 million) was standard box-office fare, and both attracted people who don't normally go to the movies. Take out their combined grosses, and the 2005 box office is actually $24 million ahead of last year's.

"That's an interesting theory," says Dergarabedian, who believes there's no one single reason for the downturn, "but I'm not sure it's valid." He notes, however, that Kong partisans should take heart. All-time box-office champ Titanic, which would earn more than $600 million in the U.S. alone, took in "only" $28.6 million its opening weekend - a figure Kong should easily better.

chris.kaltenbach@baltsun.com

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