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THE COMING BOX OFFICE WEEKEND (JUNE 30-JULY 2, 2000):

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Dec 31, 1899 | 7:00pm EST

Mel Gibson's "The Patriot" and George Clooney's "The Perfect Storm" should spark big box office fireworks this weekend.

"Patriot," the R-rated period piece drama from Columbia Pictures and Centropolis Entertainment, marched into 3,061 theaters Wednesday. It grossed an encouraging estimated $5.0 million ($1,633 per theater) in its first skirmishes with moviegoers.

"Patriot's" overall first-choice tracking of 26% has most insiders predicting it will win the five-day battle that ends with the Fourth of July holiday. After its $5 million start, it could wind up with a first place finish of $30 million or more for three days (Friday-Sunday) and $40 million or more for five days (Wednesday-Sunday).

"If you extrapolate from other performances on this kind of holiday, it could very well get to $30 million," a studio source explains. "It's a 2 hour 40 minute film. But using percentages based on 'Apollo 13,' which opened (in 1995 when July Fourth also fell on a Tuesday), that's what we could be looking at." "Apollo 13" opened on Fri., June 30, 1995, via Universal, grossing $25.4 million for three days (June 30-July 2) at 2,197 theaters.

Directed by Roland Emmerich, "Patriot" stars Mel Gibson and Heath Ledger.

"Patriot's" big competition will come from George Clooney in Warner Bros.' PG-13-rated special effects adventure drama "'s "The Perfect Storm," opening Friday (6/30) at 3,407 theaters.

"'s "Storm's" 21% first-choice tracking score also puts it on track to make big waves at the box office. Insiders say the most likely scenario is for it to come in a strong second with $20-25 million. On the other hand, there are those who predict that thanks to the broader playability it has with its PG-13-rating, it could score an upset victory and sail into first place.

"''s "Perfect Storm' is a broader appeal film, quite frankly," says an observer at another studio. "You've got to keep that in mind. 'Patriot's' been the front-runner, but I'm not so sure it's the definite winner. I think they're going to eat into each other's audiences. ''s "Perfect Storm' is more of a (special effects) thrill ride."

Directed by Wolfgang Petersen, "'s "Storm" stars George Clooney and Mark Wahlberg.

"The Fourth of July is such an unpredictable weekend, depending on weather," a studio executive explains. "And there's no precedent for two movies of this kind going head to head on this weekend, not in recent years anyway."

Is there enough room for both high profile openings? "The market can certainly absorb these two big movies going head to head, if each movie has inherent appeal," he adds.

Exactly how many tickets either film actually sells on July Fourth itself will depend on how much rain falls Tuesday, especially in the Northeast. If picnics are rained out that day in most of the original 13 Colonies, ticket sales will benefit.

"The last time July Fourth was on a Tuesday was in 1995," a distributor notes. "If you look at what happened then, Monday was down 10% to 15% from Sunday, and Tuesday was down another 10% to 15% from that. But if we were to get a lot of rain in the Northeast on Tuesday...(that would help business). The Fourth of July is one of those days that if the weather's good, it's a negative, and if the weather's terrible, it's a positive."

As for "Patriot" versus "'s "Storm," one executive speculates, "I think for the three-day weekend, there's probably going to be a $10 million spread in favor of 'The Patriot.' This movie feels to me like a movie people gotta go see. I think if it rains Tuesday, ''s "Perfect Storm' and 'Chicken Run' benefit more than 'The Patriot.' If it rains Tuesday, the family is going to do something, and a movie's a good alternative to their normal (outdoor) celebration. I think that's when 'Patriot' would get hurt (because of its R rating)."

Between "Patriot" and "'s "Storm," insiders are expecting to see record-setting July Fourth weekend grosses. Last year, when July Fourth fell on a Sunday, key films - those grossing $500,000 or more from July 2-5 - took in $160.4 million, setting a July Fourth box office record.

Last year's top-grossing film over July Fourth weekend was Warner Bros.' opening of "Wild Wild West" with $36.4 million for four days and a six day cume of $49.7 million. Columbia's "Big Daddy" was second with $26.8 million. Buena Vista/Disney's "Tarzan" was third with $19.3 million.

Paramount's launch of its R-rated animated feature "South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut" was fourth with $14.8 million for four days and a six day cume of $23.1 million. Paramount's "The General's Daughter" rounded out the top five with $14.2 million.

This July Fourth weekend should see 20th Century Fox's R-rated Jim Carrey comedy "Me, Myself & Irene" slip two pegs to third place. "Irene" kicked off in first place last weekend to $24.2 million. Going into its second weekend, it was a 12% overall first choice in the tracking.

"It probably comes in somewhere in the mid-teens," a distributor projects. "If it drops even 40%, it's $15 million. I think it's third. If it's not third - if it takes a 45% or 50% hit this weekend -- you can add that to the list of Fox's problems."

Directed by Peter & Bobby Farrelly ("There's Something About Mary"), "Irene" stars Jim Carrey and Renee Zellweger.

DreamWorks' G-rated animated feature "Chicken Run" should drop two coops to fourth place in its second week with about $12 million. After opening last weekend in second place to $17.5 million, DreamWorks is beefing up its run this weekend - going to about 2,840 theaters from 2,491 theaters.

"'Chicken Run' could be a good candidate for that family movie, that consensus movie on July Fourth," says one insider.

Directed by Peter Lord & Nick Park, "Chicken" features such voices as Mel Gibson and Miranda Richardson.

The weekend's other new arrival, Universal's PG-rated live action/computer animated comedy drama "The Adventures of Rocky & Bullwinkle," should be snapping at "Chicken's" heels in fifth place.

Like most animated features, "Rocky" wasn't tracking big going into the weekend. Nonetheless, opening at about 2,500 theaters, it could mop up $10-12 million over the weekend and soak up a few million more if it rains on the Fourth.

"The (tracking) numbers took a big jump for kids and parents," an insider points out. "The younger the kids are, the more interested the parents are in taking them." "Rocky" was a 20% first choice with parents who said they were planning to take their children to see a movie this weekend.

Directed by Des McAnuff, "Rocky" stars Rene Russo, Jason Alexander and Robert De Niro.

"You could see families go to the megaplex and split up," an insider suggests. "Mom and Dad go see 'Patriot' or ''s "Perfect Storm' and the kids go in to 'Rocky & Bullwinkle' or 'Chicken Run.' Of course, kids can go to ''s "Perfect Storm,' too. I think the megaplex phenomenon has helped R-rated movies in these situations. Families prefer to see a movie together, but some will split up (if the kids can be right next door in the same megaplex)."

Filling out lower rungs this weekend: "Shaft," "Gone In 60 Seconds," ""Big Momma's House," "Mission: Impossible 2" and "Gladiator."

On the limited release front: Sony Pictures Classics' R-rated comedy thriller "Trixie" from writer-director Alan Rudolph opens in New York and Los Angeles. Its story involves a bumbling security guard working undercover at a corrupt casino and becoming part of a plot to blackmail a politician.

Written and directed by Alan Rudolph, it stars Emily Watson, Dermot Mulroney, Nick Nolte, Nathan Lane, Brittany Murphy, Lesley Ann Warren and Will Patton.

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