This fall, Miramax brought "Princess Mononoke" to America. In Japan, the animated feature was the nation's highest-grossing movie ($150 million-plus) and the winner of its version of the Best Picture Oscar.
But despite its credentials and all-star voice-over cast (newly dubbed efforts from Claire Danes, Minnie Driver, Gillian Anderson and others), the film played on a limited number of screens here, grossing just $2.3 million.
Did Miramax and Disney -- the studio's parent company -- underestimate and undersell what is widely regarded as an animation classic?
No, the problem with "Princess Mononoke" is that it's a real movie -- not just an animated movie, but a story with complicated characterizations, adult themes and concerns and absolutely no pandering cute characters singing, dancing or clowning. The film is almost casually sophisticated, with passages of brutal, emotionally charged violence and sexual content.
It's a movie that doesn't assume cartoons are inherently "kid's stuff," that doesn't assume kids are beyond content tinged with violence and sex, that doesn't assume children will be harmed by unpleasant images.
As is so often the case with Japanese animation (or "anime") and comics ("manga"), "Princess Mononoke" assumes an intelligence and sophistication on the part of its audience (including younger audience members) that, unfortunately, just isn't to be found in America.
And here, to some degree, Disney is at fault for the film's failure -- not in choosing to distribute a blockbuster such as "Princess Mononoke" as a small, boutique film, but in training Americans to think of animated features as a specific kind of animal ... namely a cuddly, singing and dancing one.
Take, for (another) example, "The Iron Giant." The Warner Bros. release was one of the two best American animated features of the past several years (the other is "South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut" -- more on that later).
A compelling, amusing, often exciting story designed to appeal to both children and adults, "The Iron Giant" had a '50s deco look appropriate to its subject matter, vaguely invoking classic '30s animation, a la the Fleischer Studio's "Superman" cartoons.
But, unfortunately, the bottom line was: No one went to see "The Iron Giant." It grossed an underwhelming $23.2 million.
Arguably, the movie's failure was, in part, due to an ineffective theatrical trailer and marketing campaign. But the larger picture says that what ailed "The Iron Giant" ailed "Princess Mononoke": No songs, no cute-and-cuddly creatures.
By comparison, Disney's "Tarzan," released just weeks before "The Iron Giant," and replete with songs and creatures, was a summer's blockbuster, grossing $170.8 million. Edgar Rice Burroughs' vision of the Ape Man was painfully Disneyized, with dollops of political correctness and inappropriate comedy relief. The film was another instance of Disney so narrowly defining the animated feature that "Princess Mononoke," if not "The Iron Giant," barely had homes in the U.S. marketplace.
"South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut," meanwhile, was that rarest of successes -- an aggressively anti-Disney that was a hit with audiences, grossing $52 million. With a cartoon style borrowed from Charles Schulz, Rankin/Bass and Colorforms, Trey Parker and Matt Stone skewered the very genre of the animated film. Their subject matter was ignorant and prejudiced adults who are quick to censor and ban -- and slow on actually spending time raising their children.
"South Park" went on to brilliantly lampoon the Disney-style animated feature with its savagely witty original score, highlighted by a gay Satan singing the typically bombastic touchy-feely ballad so common to Disney and Disneyesque features.
Parker and Stone were well aware that, with the movie's home-video release, a hip teen-age audience would have access to this hysterically profane R-rated film. But in the meantime, they demonstrated that animated features could be smart and adult.
It was limited victory, however, a victory that "Princess Mononoke" didn't get to enjoy. The satirical nature of "South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut" placed it in a category unto itself ... for the moment anyway.
There was a "Nutty" taste at the box office this weekend - and it certainly wasn't peanuts!
Moviegoers went nuts to the tune of nearly $43 million for Eddie Murphy's PG-13-rated comedy sequel "Nutty Professor 2: The Klumps" from Universal and Imagine Entertainment.
"Nutty" easily walked off with first place, opening to an estimated $42.74 million at 3,243 theaters ($13,180 per theater). Its per-theater average was the highest for any film playing in wide release this weekend.
Although "Nutty" had been tracking strongly, projections late last week were that it would open to grosses "north of $30 Million." Clearly, its arrival packed a much bigger punch than anyone was predicting.
The original "Nutty" opened June 28, 1996, to $25.41 million at 2,115 theaters ($12,015 per theater). It went on to do $128.8 million in domestic theaters.
"Fabulous numbers," Universal distribution president Nikki Rocco said Sunday morning. "Thanks to Imagine, they have their biggest opening ever and Eddie Murphy has his biggest opening ever. And thanks to Universal Pictures, we have another record breaker."
Looking at the past records, Rocco said, "For Imagine it was 'Ransom' at $34.2 million and for Eddie it was 'Beverly Hills Cop 2' for a Memorial Day weekend with $33 million for four days.
"And it's the second-biggest comedy opening ever, behind 'Austin Powers 2.' It's the fourth all-time July opening. It's the second all-time July non-holiday opening."
What accounts for the huge opening? "Eddie Murphy. Comedy. They love the Klumps," Rocco replied. "It's comedy and Eddie - definitely."
Directed by Peter Segal, 'Klumps' stars Eddie Murphy, Janet Jackson and Larry Miller.
DreamWorks R-rated supernatural thriller "What Lies Beneath" showed much better legs than insiders had been projecting.
"Beneath," a co-production of DreamWorks, which is releasing it domestically, and 20th Century Fox, which is distributing it internationally, fell one peg to second place in its second weekend a still sizzling estimated $22.0 million (-26 percent) at 2,825 theaters (+12 theaters; $7,788 per theater). Its cume is approximately $68.5 million.
Directed by Robert Zemeckis, it stars Harrison Ford and Michelle Pfeiffer.
20th Century Fox's "X-Men" fell one slot to third place in its third week with a less X-citing estimated $11.5 million (-51 percent) at 3,107 theaters (-5 theaters; $3,701 per theater). Its cume is approximately $121.8 million, heading for $140-145 million in domestic theaters.
Directed by Bryan Singer and produced by Lauren Shuler Donner and Ralph Winter, "X-Men's" extensive cast is headed by Patrick Stewart, Hugh Jackman and Ian McKellen.
Dimension Films' R-rated, gross-out, comedy-horror film spoof "Scary Movie" held on to fourth place in its fourth week with a still-solid estimated $8.1 million (-47 percent) at 3,256 theaters (-45 theaters; $2,487 per theater). Its cume is approximately $131.9 million.
"Scary" will crack $138 million by next weekend, meaning it will overtake "Good Will Hunting" to become the biggest-grossing film ever for Miramax or Dimension.
"It's fantastic," Miramax senior vice president, marketing David Kaminow said Sunday morning. "We're getting a ton of repeat business. We knew this weekend was going to be our biggest drop with 'Nutty Professor' coming into the marketplace. But, all in all, it's a pretty good hold."
Directed by Keenen Ivory Wayans, it stars Carmen Electra and Shannon Elizabeth.
Warner Bros.' PG-13-rated adventure drama blockbuster "The Perfect Storm" remained anchored in fifth place in its fifth week, still holding okay with an estimated $7.03 million (-27 percent) at 3,093 theaters (-110 theaters; $2,273 per theater). Its cume is approximately $157.6 million, heading for $180 million or more.
Directed by Wolfgang Petersen, "Storm" stars George Clooney and Mark Wahlberg.
Warner Bros.' G-rated Japanese animated feature "Pokemon The Movie 2000" plunged three rungs in its second week to sixth place with a quieter estimated $6.3 million (-68 percent) at 2,752 theaters (theater count unchanged; $2,289 per theater). Its cume is approximately $33.2 million, heading for $50 million in domestic theaters.
"I said to you last week that we were going to have good mid-weeks," Warners' Fellman noted. "Last week, we averaged almost $2 million a day. So even if we average $800,000 a day during the week, we'll be over $10 million (for this week), which will bring us to around $40 million. We were projecting $50 million, so that's easy (to get to). That's a win-win for us."
Looking ahead, Fellman added, "Watch how fast the next one comes in. The third one opened in Japan and did 111 percent of the second one just last week. The people who make these have said they're going to make a fourth now. We have an option on the third and we'll exercise it. We'll most likely release it at Easter time."
The video release of "Pokemon The Movie 2000" will go out during the holiday season this year, Fellman said, "and we'll put a trailer on it for number three. Then we'll pop out number three (in theaters next Easter)."
Buena Vista/Disney's PG-rated comedy "Disney's The Kid" dropped one notch to seventh place in its fourth week with a calm estimated $5.1 million (-23 percent) at 2,328 theaters (-15 theaters; $2,191 per theater). Its cume is approximately $52.0 million.
Directed by Jon Turtletaub, it stars Bruce Willis.
Columbia and Centropolis Entertainment's "The Patriot" slid one slot to eighth seventh place in its fifth week with a slower estimated $4.6 million (-26 percent) at 2,329 theaters (-422 theaters; $1,975 per theater). Its cume is approximately $101.4 million, heading for $115 million in domestic theaters.
Directed by Roland Emmerich, "Patriot" stars Mel Gibson and Heath Ledger.
Destination Films' opening of its G-rated family film "Thomas and the Magic Railroad" chugged into ninth place with a hopeful estimated $4.15 million at 2,106 theaters ($1,970 per theater). Its cume after 5 days is approximately $6.6 million.
"For a movie that we've all known is young -- mostly half-priced tickets and playing basically up until about seven o'clock when you hit a wall -- it's not so bad," Destination chairman & CEO Barry London said Sunday morning.
"It's basically positioned well. It's got nothing behind it to compete with for the rest of the summer. And, hopefully, the film will continue to perform. The exit polls seem to be pretty good on it. On Wednesday, it opened to $1.4 million, which was phenomenal (for a kids movie opening midweek). It did $1 million on Thursday. So it's been very consistent as to what it can do on a daily basis."
Destination has all North American rights to "Thomas," including home video. "I would think this should be a terrific video title," London said. "Especially with the pattern of how many they've sold of their 30-minute (TV shows about Thomas) - over 20 million."
Directed by Britt Allcroft, it stars Alec Baldwin, Peter Fonda and Mara Wilson.
Rounding out the Top Ten was DreamWorks' G-rated animated feature "Chicken Run," down one notch but still showing decent legs in its sixth week with an estimated $3.4 million (-25 percent) at 2,114 theaters (-463 theaters; $1,608 per theater). Its cume is approximately $92.9 million, heading for $100 million in domestic theaters.
Directed by Peter Lord & Nick Park, "Chicken" features such voices as Mel Gibson and Miranda Richardson.
OTHER OPENINGS This weekend also saw the arrival of Paramount Classics' R-rated drama "The Girl On the Bridge" in limited release, placing 26th with an encouraging estimated $64,000 at 6 theaters ($10,735 per theater).
Directed by Pa rice Leconte, it stars Daniel Auteuil and Vanessa Paradis.
USA Films' R-rated drama "Wonderland-USA" opened in New York and Los Angeles, placing 28th with a hopeful estimated $37,000 at 4 theaters ($9,150 per theater).
Directed by Michael Winterbottom, it stars Ian Hart and Stuart Townsend.
SNEAK PREVIEWS Warner Bros. held 800 sneak previews Saturday night of its PG-13-rated football comedy "The Replacements" from Bel-Air Entertainment.
"The sneaks were excellent," Warner Bros. Distribution president Dan Fellman said Sunday morning. "About 80 percent of the theaters were 50 percent-to-capacity, which was great. This was the whole key to what we do - to try to get bodies in there. 90 percent of the audience put it in the top three boxes (excellent, very good and good). They really liked this movie.
"All of our screenings have been excellent. We're going to do it again next weekend (also at about 800 theaters)."
Getting word of mouth going, he added, was "what the program was about. It obviously helped. We'll see the tracking next week and we'll see what the word is. We've got a radio promotional campaign. We've got word of mouth screenings. We've got sneaks. The movie sells itself and that's why we want to screen it."
"Replacements" opens Aug. 11 at 2,700-plus theaters.
Directed by Howard Deutch, it stars Keanu Reeves and Gene Hackman.
Warners also had about 800 sneaks scheduled for Sunday night of its PG-13-rated sci-fi drama "Space Cowboys."
Directed and produced by Clint Eastwood, it stars Eastwood, Tommy Lee Jones, Donald Sutherland and James Garner.
"Our early screenings for the press were excellent," Fellman pointed out. "People just really like this movie. The reviews coming in from the (media) junket are just fantastic. It's a good movie."
"Cowboys" opens wide Aug. 4.
EXPANSIONS On the expansion front this weekend, Lions Gate Films' R-rated sex comedy "But I'm A Cheerleader" widened in its fourth week, placing 20th with a quiet estimated $0.23 million at 60 theaters (+31 theaters; $3,750 per theater). Its cume is approximately $0.6 million.
Directed by Jamie Babbit, it stars Natasha Lyonne, Clea Duvall, RuPaul Charles and Cathy Moriarity.
USA Films' director's cut reissue of the R-rated 1984 thriller "Blood Simple" expanded in its fourth week, placing 21st with an okay estimated $0.18 million (+4 percent) at 67 theaters (+11 theaters; $2,640 per theater). Its cume is approximately $0.7 million.
Directed by Joel Coen and written by Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, it stars John Getz, Frances McDormand, Dan Hedaya, Samm-Art Williams and M. Emmet Walsh.
Artisan Entertainment's R-rated dark comedy "Chuck and Buck" expanded in its third week, placing 23rd with a calm estimated $0.13 million (+9 percent) at 32 theaters (+7 theaters; $4,130 per theater). Its cume is approximately $0.4 million.
Directed by Miguel Arteta, it stars Mike white and Chris Weitz.
Lions Gate Films' PG-13-rated "The Eyes of Tammy Faye," a documentary about the life of Tammy Faye Baker, added theaters in its second week, placing 27th with a restrained estimated $48,000 at 9 theaters (+7 theaters; $5,333 per theater). Its cume is approximately $72,000.
WEEKEND COMPARISONS Key films -- those grossing more than $500,000 for the weekend -- took in approximately $123.14 million, down about 19.45 percent from the comparable weekend last year when key films grossed $152.87 million.
This weekend's key film gross was down about 7.10 percent from this year's previous weekend when key films grossed $132.55 million.
Last year, Paramount's opening week of "Runaway Bride" was first with $35.06 million at 3,158 theaters ($11,101 per theater); and Artisan Entertainment's first wide week of "Blair Witch Project" was second with $29.21 million at 1,101 theaters ($26,528 per theater). The top two films one year ago grossed $64.3 million. This year, the top two films grossed an estimated $64.7 million.
STUDIO MARKET SHARES Based on business by key films (those grossing $500,000 or more), last weekend's top six distributors were:
Universal was first with one film ("Nutty Professor 2: The Klumps"), grossing an estimated $42.7 million or 34.7 percent of the market.
DreamWorks was second with three films("What Lies Beneath," "Chicken Run" and "Gladiator"), grossing an estimated $26.3 million or 21.4 percent of the market.
Warner Bros. was third with three films ("Pokemon The Movie 2000," "The Perfect Storm" and "The In Crowd"), grossing an estimated $13.97 million or 11.3 percent of the market.
20th Century Fox was fourth with three films ("X-Men," "Me, Myself & Irene" and "Big Momma's House"), grossing an estimated $13.73 million or 11.2 percent of the market.
Miramax (Miramax and Dimension) was fifth with one film ("Scary Movie"), grossing an estimated $8.1 million or 6.6 percent of the market.
Sony Pictures Releasing (Columbia and TriStar) was sixth with two films ("The Patriot" and "Loser"), grossing an estimated $7.3 million or 5.9 percent of the market.
ADDITIONAL ESTIMATES (11)Loser/Columbia: Theaters: 2,016 (0) Gross: $2.7 million (-55 percent) Average per theater: $1,339 Cume: $12.0 million
(12)Me, Myself & Irene/Fox: Theaters: 1,576 (-874) Gross: $1.3 million (-56 percent) Average per theater: $825 Cume: $85.7 million
(13)Mission: Impossible 2/Paramount: Theaters: 820 (-205) Gross: $0.97 million (-24 percent) Average per theater: $1,185 Cume: $211.4 million
(14)Big Momma's House/Fox: Theaters: 924 (-269) Gross: $0.93 million (-45 percent) Average per theater: $1,005 Cume: $113.0 million
(15)Gladiator/DreamWorks: Theaters: 651 (-96) Gross: $0.9 million (-14 percent) Average per theater: $1,385 Cume: $180.0 million
(16)Gone In 60 Seconds/BV: Theaters: 803 (-239) Gross: $0.78 million (-33 percent) Average per theater: $971 Cume: $95.0 million
(17)The In Crowd/WB/Morgan Creek: Theaters: 1,335 (-22) Gross: $0.64 million (-57 percent) Average per theater: $479 Cume: $4.4 million
(18)Shaft/Paramount: Theaters: 757 (-468) Gross: $0.47 million (-56 percent) Average per theater: $615 Cume: $68.8 million
(19)Adventures of Rocky & Bullwinkle/Universal: Theaters: 657 (-545) Gross: $0.4 million (-40 percent) Average per theater: $610 Cume: $23.3 million
(20)But I'm A Cheerleader/Lions Gate: (See EXPANSIONS above)
(21) Blood Simple/USA Films: (See EXPANSIONS above)
(22)U-571/Universal: Theaters: 285 (-45) Gross: $0.16 million (-20 percent) Average per theater: $560 Cume: $76.7 million
(23)Chuck & Buck/Artisan: (See EXPANSIONS above)
(24)The Flintstones in Viva Rock Vegas/Universal: Theaters: 250 (-56) Gross: $0.12 million (-29 percent) Average per theater: $480 Cume: $34.9 million
(25) Erin Brockovich/Universal: Theaters: 145 (-27) Gross: $65,000 (-28 percent) Average per theater: $450 Cume: $125.4 million
(26)THE GIRL ON THE BRIDGE/Paramount Classics: (See OTHER OPENINGS above)
(27)The Eyes of Tammy Faye/Lions Gate: (See EXPANSIONS above)
(28)WONDERLAND/USA Films: (See OTHER OPENINGS above)
(29)Alice and Martin/USA Films: Theaters: 1 (0) Gross: $18,448 (-14 percent) Average per theater: $18,448 Cume: $52,000