“Harbor” makes its mark

Even if critics slammed the film as a dud, Pearl Harbor managed to capture the record as the second-highest grossing film for a four-day opening, taking in a healthy $75.1 million box office during the Memorial Day weekend. Industry experts had estimated a $100 million opening, but Disney predicted that the three-hour epic would gross between $45 million and $55 million.

The No. 1 spot is still held by The Lost World: Jurassic Park, which earned $92.7 million during the 1997 Memorial Day weekend. In comparison, other films in this Memorial Day league that came close to World were Mission Impossible 2‘s $56.8 million in 2000 and Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace‘s $64.8 in 1999. Even the recently released The Mummy Returns gave these films a run for its money, opening with $68 million–on a regular three-day weekend.

“We are extremely pleased, bowled over actually, by the film’s success,” said Chuck Viane, Disney’s president of distribution. “The movie met all of [Disney’s] expectations. Thanks also to the exhibitor community, who tried as hard as they could to generate box office by finding extra seats and even scheduling extra showings.

“We will attribute the long-term health of the movie to those people who waited until the crowds died down to go see the film.”

Paul Dergarabedian, the president of Exhibitor Relations, said Pearl Harbor enjoyed a “fantastic opening for this kind of film–a period drama about World War II.” Exhibitor Relations is the oldest full service film industry statistical research firm in the business.

“It had several elements that could possibly prevent such a huge opening,” Dergarabedian said. “So, the guys at Disney should be really happy. This is the best opening it could have.”

Audiences were primarily older than 25, with slightly more males than females in attendance, Pearl Harbor producer Jerry Bruckheimer told the Los Angeles Times. Women gave the film higher ratings than the men. That could be because of the powerful hunk ratio of the film’s stars, Ben Affleck and Josh Hartnett.

Dergarabedian also attributed to the film’s success to its ability to bring out the older audiences. He said he believes this will help the longevity of the film’s box office.

“It’ll most likely surpass the $100 million mark by next weekend.” Dergarabedian said.

He noted that, generally, the numbers tend to drop off after a big holiday weekend and that only time will tell how well the film will do overall.

The World War II epic, about two best friends who end up flying planes and battling the Japanese while at the same time wooing the same woman, teamed up with Shrek and The Mummy Returns to make the Memorial Day weekend one of the biggest weekends ever. DreamWorks’ fractured fairy tale made $54.2 million and Universal’s Mummy sequel earned $19.1 million. The box office total for the weekend stood at an estimated $178.5 million total, according to the numbers posted by the industry tracking firm Exhibitor Relations.

Did Disney and others expect more from Pearl Harbor?

Peter Schneider, chairman of Walt Disney Studios, said last week that he would be thrilled if the film made $45 million and $55 million during its opening weekend.

“If I can get better than $54 million I’m gonna be thrilled, because we’ve only got three shows a day [due to the 183-minute running time, limiting the amount of screens the film played at],” he said.

Industry experts estimated that the film would reach the $100 million mark this weekend–and Disney’s marketing certainly parlayed that feeling by spending millions of dollars promoting the film and hosting an elaborate premiere in Hawaii. At the same time, the media was bombarded with Pearl Harbor promotions, raising Disney’s stock prices last week as the hype escalated.

Also, the epic’s $135 million budget, the largest ever approved, required some penny pinching, including the deferring of salaries, to keep the film’s costs from skyrocketing. But Disney’s big investment is paying off. The roughly 6,000 screens the film played on were largely sold out.

Certainly, if the critics have anything to say about it, the film should not have a long run. Widely blasted, the film has been criticized for its sappy love triangle between Affleck, Hartnett and Kate Beckinsale. Although most agreed the action was spectacular, critics said that rest of the film lagged seriously behind–about 1½ hours behind to be exact.

The reaction from war veterans is more positive. Dr. Bob Schmutzler, 77, a veteran who was a 17-year-old Army private stationed in Hawaii at the time of the attack, told CNN that he would recommend the movie.

“I would recommend it to anybody. I think it’s going to raise patriotism in America just a little bit, which is what we need,” Schmutzler said.

Some fear the film may spark a resurgence in anti-Japanese sentiment. Don Nakanishi, director of Asian American Studies Center at the University of California at Los Angeles, told the Los Angeles Times that he felt the Japanese-Americans have a tough time as it is being regarded as Americans, even if they were born and raised here. Now, this film may further the struggle, he said.

Nakanishi recalled an incident while in college when a group of students pelted him with water balloons, yelling “Bomb Pearl Harbor!”

“I really didn’t know whether I should be laughing or crying,” he said.