By the Numbers: Box Office Preview July 20

From an artistic standpoint, it’s easy to understand why Steven Spielberg declined to undertake a third trip to Jurassic Park.

He already let loose T-Rex on an unsuspecting San Diego at the end of 1997’s The Lost World: Jurassic Park. What was left for Spielberg to tear apart?

So, he turned over the keys to Jurassic Park to director Joe Johnston, of Honey, I Shrunk the Kids and Jumanji fame.

Johnston, whose last film was 1999’s criminally neglected October Sky, must be feeling some pressure. Trying to out-Spielberg Spielberg is hardly an enviable task. To an extent, Johnston succeeds. His Jurassic Park III is a slight improvement upon The Lost World–which is not exactly a compliment, considering that the rote Spielberg sequel failed to recapture Jurassic Park‘s sense of awe.

Thus far, all is well in Jurassic Park. The film opened Wednesday with a whopping $19 million. That’s the second-largest Wednesday opening ever, behind Star Wars: Episode 1 – The Phantom Menace‘s $28.5 million in May 1999. It also ranks as the eighth largest first-day gross, and ranks favorably in comparison with The Lost World‘s $21.6 million opening day haul in May 1997.

It took another $11.5 million on Thursday, bringing its total to $30.6 million.

Still, Jurassic Park III has a lot to live up to. Jurassic Park grossed $357 million in 1993. The Lost World ranks as the No. 1 opener made $90.2 million during its four-day weekend. It eventually made $229 million, no mean feat even for a sequel to one of the high-grossing films of all time.

Despite the return of Jurassic Park‘s Sam Neill, and the introduction of a new adversary in the form of the spinosauraus, this second sequel is unlikely to scale the dizzying heights of its predecessors. It doesn’t help that it faces stiff competition next week with the arrival of Tim Burton‘s Planet of the Apes remake. Still, Jurassic Park III should enjoy one of the summer’s strongest openings–aided by its must-see factor and a speedy 90 minute running time–to rank as one of the year’s mammoth hits.

Jurassic Park III‘s sole competition comes from Julia Roberts, who should have even more to smile about after this weekend. Her new romantic comedy America’s Sweethearts, about two married movie stars trying to avoid a very public split during a press junket, represents a perfect alternative to watching dinosaurs feast on human flesh. Plus, Roberts‘ split from Benjamin Bratt should keep tongues wagging about art imitating life.

Roberts‘ 1999 Notting Hill –another film about a movie star’s love life–proved irresistible to those who could not or did not want to see The Phantom Menace or The Mummy. Runaway Bride, Roberts‘ long-waited reunion with Pretty Woman costar Richard Gere and

director Garry Marshall, proved a late summer 1999 hit.

Audiences also might be eager for another Roberts romance, given her most recent departures from the lighthearted. Erin Brockovich managed to make a fortune and earn Roberts an Oscar in the process. This year’s The Mexican teamed Roberts with Brad Pitt, but the pairing fizzled rather than sizzled. The Mexican stalled at $68.8 million, hindered by lousy reviews.

America’s Sweethearts should benefit from the presence of Traffic star Catherine Zeta-Jones and her High Fidelity cohort John Cusack as the film’s bickering couple. Billy Crystal, back in favor after 1999’s Analyze This and this year’s HBO offering 61*, wrote and co-stars. Given its star wattage, America’s Sweethearts‘s could surpass Runaway Bride‘s $152 million gross.

The film could indicate whether former Disney chief Joe Roth‘s new company, Revolution Studios, is a force to be reckoned with. Its inaugural production, March’s Tomcats, flopped. The Animal, another lowbrow comedy, managed to earn $54.4 million and solidified Rob Schneider‘s improbable status as a box office draw. But America’s Sweethearts is Revolution’s pedigree production, and its success or failure may speak volumes about the company’s future. It also marks Roth‘s first time behind the camera since he directed 1990’s Coupe de Ville, so no doubt he has more than a professional interest in the comedy’s reception.

Expect Legally Blonde to put up something of a fight against America’s Sweethearts, but it won’t emerge the victor. Last weekend’s surprising No. 1 film enjoyed a strong week, earning almost another $12 million from Monday through Thursday, bringing its seven-day total to $32.3 million.

The Reese Witherspoon comedy looks certain to be this summer’s sleeper hit, just as the other bubbly teen offerings Clueless and Bring It On were in 1995 and 2000, respectively.

The thought of Robert De Niro, Edward Norton and Marlon Brando chewing the same scenery ensured that The Score opened strong. The heist thriller managed to gross $26.4 million through seven days. Though it will take a hit, The Score should enjoy another strong weekend

and wind up as one of De Niro‘s most successful non-comedic hits in years.

The same won’t be true of Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within. The $140 million CGI epic opened July 11 with a strong $5 million, but blasted into oblivion extremely quickly. Its total stands at a mediocre $23.1 million through nine days. Along with Evolution, Final Fantasy will surely rank as one of the summer’s biggest flops.

Another major concern must be A.I. Artificial Intelligence. The Spielberg-directed version of Stanley Kubrick‘s futuristic Pinocchio project took a nasty tumble last weekend, dropping 63 percent to $5 million. Its total stood at $71.4 million through Tuesday. It is unlikely to hit $100 million.

Ironically, A.I. was pushed out of the Top 10 daily box office Wednesday by the Spielberg-produced Jurassic Park III. Though nowhere near a disaster on the scale of Always or Empire of the Sun, A.I.‘s inability to connect with audiences–adult or children–must rank as a personal failure for Spielberg.

The disappointments continue to mount. Scary Movie 2 faded faster than expected. It had a second weekend of $9.5 million, dropping 53 percent. In comparison, Scary Movie did not drop to below $10 million until it’s fourth weekend. Its total is now $57.3 million. Like A.I., Scary Movie 2 is unlikely to hit $100 million, but, given its modest $38 million budget, it should prove profitable.

Families, however, continued to find those fighting Cats and Dogs cute and cuddly. After two weeks, its total stands at $65.6 million. It has a distinct advantage of not facing any real competition until the Aug. 10 arrival of Osmosis Jones.

The release of Jurassic Park III comes at a time when Hollywood is facing the prospect of a long, hot and ugly summer. Many films, including Pearl Harbor, The Fast and the Furious and Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, burn bright on the opening weekend, only to flame out almost immediately. Box office takings last weekend were $120.5 million, down from $153 million during the same period last year.

Jurassic Park III marks the start of four big weekends. Planet of the Apes–still reportedly unfinished, which is never a good sign–is the sole nationwide release on July 27. Whether Apes will render Jurassic Park III‘s dinosaurs extinct remains to be seen. Rush Hour 2 opens Aug. 3. A week later, Universal serves up American Pie 2.

The continuing success of the aforementioned is the only likely solution to Hollywood’s long, hot and ugly summer.