By the Numbers: Dec. 21

Pouring $270 million into a trilogy made back-to-back shooting seemed like a risk when director Peter Jackson first embarked on his quest to film The Lord of the Rings trilogy.

Filming began two years ago. On Wednesday, the wait for one of the year’s most anticipated blockbusters-to-be came to an end as the first of the three films stormed into 3,359 theaters and 5,700 screens.

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring earned $18.2 million in its first day, no doubt driven by a huge turnout by hardcore fans of the book. This is an early indication that New Line’s costly investment in the adaptations of J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic saga of sword and sorcery should pay off handsomely. The film did not break the opening day record of $28.5 million, which is held by Star Wars: Episode 1-The Phantom Menace, but enjoyed the third best Wednesday opening behind The Phantom Menace and Jurassic Park III ($19 million).

With the malls crammed with last-minute present seekers, the weekend before Christmas is not known for its record-setting box office. Hence The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring won’t pose a serious challenge to Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone recent record-breaking opening of $90 million.

Also, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring faces fierce competition from four new wide releases and a rush of Oscar contenders now hitting a handful of theaters. But The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring should still enjoy the largest December opening in history, an honor that currently belongs to Ocean’s Eleven at $38.1 million.

Rolf Wittweg, New Line’s worldwide president of marketing and distribution, predicts $60 million in five days. That seems an obtainable goal. And, at the end of the day, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring should surpass Rush Hour 2‘s $226.1 million total to become New Line’s biggest grossing film.

Excellent reviews, and its Golden Globe nominations, also should allow The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring to dominate the box office through the remainder of the Christmas holidays and well into January. This is not a film that will make most of its money in two or three weekends-as did Harry Potter–but one that could enjoy a long and healthy life a la Titanic.

This means a mad scramble to claim the runner-up position.

The Majestic, with Jim Carrey as a 1950s blacklisted screenwriter suffering from a loss of memory, looks likely to trump Joe Somebody, Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius and How High.

The Green Mile and The Shawshank Redemption director Frank Darabont finally flees the unfriendly confines of prison for a small California town, whose residents mistake Carrey for a World War II hero believed to be killed in combat. Overly nostalgic, and definitely too long at around 2-1/2 hours, The Majestic should still strike a nerve given that it deals with a community grieving for its loved ones lost during wartime.

The Majestic finds Carrey in a subdued mood, and certainly looking for that elusive Oscar nomination. The onetime pet detective’s had mixed success when tackling serious roles. The Truman Show earned $125.6 million in 1998, proof that audiences will flock to see Carrey even when he’s not talking out of his posterior. His acclaimed turn as late comic Andy Kaufman, in Man on the Moon, was greeted with apathy and earned a humorless $34.5 million. The Majestic parallels The Truman Show in that both feature malleable protagonists shaped by the community their circumstances and environment. To this end, The Majestic should enjoy a Truman-like welcome.

Joe Somebody finds Tim Allen in a fighting mood as he takes on bullying co-worker Patrick Warburton. The family comedy marks Allen‘s third film directed by Home Improvement buddy John Pasquin, but tough competition and little buzz should make it their least successful.

Allen and Pasquin won over Christmas audiences in 1994 with The Santa Clause, which generated $144.8 million. Not bad considering that marked Allen‘s film debut. The two also work on Jungle 2 Jungle, a tedious remake of the French comedy Little Indian, Big City that somehow grossed $59.9 million in 1997. Joe Somebody should open closer to Galaxy Quest‘s mediocre $8.1 million opening than Jungle 2 Jungle‘s $12.8 million. However, good reviews for Galaxy Quest resulted in the Star Trek-inspired spoof setting a course for $71.1 million. Joe Somebody certainly isn’t likely to generate that much interest, and should end up making a little more than Allen‘s holiday 1997 turkey, For Richer or Poorer, which made a poor $31.6 million.

Nickelodeon scored two big hits with movies based on its popular Rugrats series. Now it is the turn of Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius to blast into theaters. The animated adventure arrives at a time when leading rivals Harry Potter and Monsters, Inc. are showing signs of fatigue. That bodes somewhat well for Jimmy Neutron’s chances at success, but whether his adventure attracts as many parents as he saves in the films from aliens remains to be seen. Either way, Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius will struggle to match the $27.3 million and $22.7 million openings posted by, respectively, The Rugrats Movie and Rugrats in Paris.

Friday meets National Lampoon’s Animal House in How High, with Redman and Method Man toking their way into Harvard University. The rappers display an easy charm in this uneven but occasionally funny throwback to the hazy days of Cheech & Chong.

Pairing Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg in The Wash didn’t bring out too many fans of the influential rap superstars. That said, How High debuts in 1,266 theaters–almost twice as many as The Wash–and should attract plenty of stoners looking for a good time.

The arrival of The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring won’t stop Harry Potter from becoming the year’s top grossing film within the next week. The apprentice wizard already has conjured up $255.9 million through Wednesday, and should give director Chris Columbus and distributor Warner Bros. a wonderful holiday gift on Christmas Day by surpassing Shrek‘s $267.6 million gross.

Monsters, Inc. continues to hold up admirably after seven weeks in theaters. Thank the Disney/Pixar adventure’s newly attached faux outtakes for attracting repeat business. Monsters, Inc. now has $220 million through Wednesday.

Withering reviews and lousy word of mouth will see Vanilla Sky fall fast and hard this weekend. Director Cameron Crowe‘s muddled remake of Abre los ojos (Open Your Eyes) opened last weekend with $25 million–good, but far from great for star Tom Cruise-and continued to do brisk business through Wednesday. With $31.3 million already in the bank, Vanilla Sky looks set to follow a similar path as Cruise‘s 1999 disappointment Eyes Wide Shut. That psychological thriller, marking Stanley Kubrick‘s final directorial effort, opened with $21.7 million but ended up with a sleepy $55.6 million. Vanilla Sky will likely end up making more than Eyes Wide Shut, but fall far short of the $153.9 million that Jerry Maguire, the first collaboration between Cruise and Crowe, made in 1996. Indeed, Vanilla Sky dropped from first place from third place Wednesday, making way for The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring and Ocean’s Eleven.

Director Steven Soderbergh continues his winning streak as Ocean’s Eleven remains hot, hot, hot. The cool remake of the dreary Rat Pack heist yarn almost stole Vanilla Sky‘s thunder by earning $22 million in its second weekend. George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon et al have stolen off with $78.5 million through Wednesday.

Spoofing Scream seems more profitable than poking fun at Save the Last Dance. Not Another Teen Movie, which ridicules high school dramas old and new, opened with a mild $12.6 million and has $15.3 million through Wednesday. Scary Movie managed to make $42.3 million in its opening weekend. Not Another Teen Movie is running even with Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo, which opened in 1999 with $12.2 million and solicited a total $65.5 million. Dude, Where’s My Car? opened the same time last year with $13.8 million but stalled at $46.7 million. Neither, though, faced direct competition during their respective Christmas runs. Not Another Teen Movie now must stare down How High this weekend.

The Christmas rush will doubtless see Shallow Hal ($67.3 million), Spy Game ($58.5 million) and Black Knight ($30.1 million) tumble out of the Top 10 this weekend. Black Knight remains a disappointment, especially as it marks Martin Lawrence‘s second consecutive flop following What’s the Worst that Could Happen?. The fast fade expereinced by Pitt‘s Spy Game could have been avoided had it not knocked heads with his Ocean’s Eleven and the similarly themed Behind Enemy Lines ($39.7 million).

If this weekend appears busy, wait until Christmas Day. The highly anticipated Ali, with Will Smith as the boxer formerly known as Cassius Clay, will take on surprised contender Kate & Leopold. Miramax moved the Meg RyanHugh Jackman romantic comedy from Friday after assessing The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring‘s true potential.

Oscar hopefuls opening in limited release or beginning to expand include: A Beautiful Mind, with Russell Crowe portraying real-life mathematics genius John Nash; The Shipping News, Lasse Hallstrom‘s adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel; The Royal Tenenbaums, which earned an astounding $276,981 at only five theaters last weekend; and In the Bedroom, which continues to receive award after award from various critics group.