Disney-Pixar's "Monsters, Inc." set box-office records when it opened last weekend and seems destined to become one of the top hits of 2001 -- getting the holiday season off to an auspicious start, and continuing a string of positive economic news in at least one sector of the otherwise unfortunate U.S. economy.
John Fithian, president of the National Associations of Theater Owners, says the movie exhibition business has been good -- even after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks -- and should remain strong through the end of the year.
"We are about 6 percent higher on box-office receipts this year than we were at this time last year and, I think we're close to 1 percent higher in admissions, year-to-date," said Fithian. "It's a real strong improvement. We hope that trend continues through holiday period."
Although movie admissions dipped a little bit after Sept. 11, Fithian said the terrorist attacks have had no negative impact overall on exhibitors.
"We've had eight weekends since Sept. 11," he said, "and I think seven of them have had better results that comparable period the year before. Yes, there was a short-term impact when Americans obviously stayed home and watched the news for a long period of time, but we found that Americans -- while still very focused on what's going on in the world -- are trying to move on with their lives and looking for ways to take a break from the strains of the day, and a movie is a good way to do that."
Fans of "Harry Potter" are counting the days until Nov. 16, when Warner Bros. finally releases "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone." Their anticipation cannot possibly be a match for that of the people who own and operate the theaters where the movie will play.
The studio plans to show "Harry Potter" at more than 3,000 theaters -- some analysts say it could be as many as 4,000. At that rate, it could conceivably play on somewhere in the neighborhood of 5,000 to 7,000 screens.
Based on past experience, those are almost preposterous numbers.
The record is 3,653 theaters -- set on the last weekend of May 2000 when Tom Cruise's "Mission: Impossible 2" grossed $57.8 million in its opening weekend. The picture went on to gross $215.4 million and reach No. 30 on the list of all-time U.S. blockbusters.
"Shrek" took in $42.3 million when it opened in 3,587 theaters on May 18 of this year. It went on to take in $267 million and finish at No. 13 on the all-time list.
"Monsters, Inc." opened at 3,237 locations and grossed $62.6 million in its first weekend. It was the fourth biggest three-day opening ever, and the best ever for an animated feature -- beating the $57.4 million standard set in 1999 by another Disney-Pixar project, "Toy Story 2." Box-office analysts are projecting that "Monsters, Inc." will finish comfortably over the $200 million mark.
Opening big movies on such large numbers of screens is a relatively recent development in the movie business, generally born of distributors' distaste for lost sales that result when houses fill up on opening weekends and would-be ticket buyers are turned away.
Fithian said the trend is actually troubling to NATO members, (the national association of theatre owners -- not the defense alliance) because with so many ticket sales occurring in the first weekend of a movie's run, there is a risk that the run will be shorter.
"We are troubled by the shorter runs," said Fithian. "The drop-off in attendance in pictures the second and third weekend is higher this year than it has been in previous years. It used to be that if the drop-off was 25-to-30 percent you'd start to get a little troubled. That's a good number now. Now, the typical drop-off is more like 40-to-45 percent."
The reason why that matters to exhibitors is that the revenue they derive from playing a picture is based on complicated formulas which give the distributor a much larger share of the revenues in the early part of a run, forcing exhibitors to wait several weeks before they start to partake in a more meaningful way in any box-office bonanza.
If "Harry Potter" lives up to its potential, exhibitors won't have to worry about a short run. But, as everyone in Hollywood knows, there are no sure things.
Warner Bros. is understandably downplaying the box-office potential for the first movie version of J.K. Rowling's wildly popular book series. But box office watchers in the financial world are not shy about projecting huge numbers.
Some analysts have already speculated that, internationally at least, "Potter" could sink "Titanic's" box-office record.
The more times the movie is screened -- at its London premiere last Sunday, for example, or at various trade and industry screenings around the U.S. -- the more realistic the higher projection sounds.
Most of the pre-holiday attention as been lavished on "Harry Potter," "Monsters, Inc." and "The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring" -- the first part of writer-director Peter Jackson's movie adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien's classic "Lord of the Rings" trilogy.
But box-office watchers are always on the lookout for surprises.
Big-ticket movies do not always live up to expectations (Note: "Godzilla," "Wild Wild West"). And you never know when a movie will come out of nowhere and turn into the little engine that could.
This time last year, few people had heard a word about "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" or "Traffic." Both went on to gross well over $100 million, and both were nominated for the best picture Oscar.
It's too early to identify the pleasant surprises of the 2001 holiday season, but the slate has its share of prestige pictures that are expected to do reasonably good -- if not blockbuster -- business.
Will Smith as the champ in "Ali" opens at Christmas -- the rough equivalent of "Cast Away's" opening slot last year. The Tom Hanks desert island drama went on to gross $233.6 million and reach No. 23 on the all-time blockbuster list.
The major attraction this weekend -- the new Farrelly Brothers comedy, "Shallow Hal," starring Gwyneth Paltrow and Jack Black -- could break out, as other Farrelly projects have ("There's Something About Mary," "Dumb & Dumber").
Martin Lawrence could continue his crowd-pleasing ways with "Black Knight" -- as an employee at the mythical Medieval World amusement park who gets smacked in the head and wakes up in 14th century England.
"Spy Game" has Robert Redford and Brad Pitt, in the story of a CIA operative who is ready to retire when he learns that his protégé is under arrest for espionage in China. Pitt also shows up -- with Julia Roberts and George Clooney -- in "Ocean's Eleven," Oscar-winning director Steven Soderbergh's remake of the 1960 heist caper starring Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack.
One of the most anticipated comedies of the season -- "The Royal Tenenbaums," starring Ben Stiller, Gwyneth Paltrow and Gene Hackman -- is generating some fairly positive buzz. And box-office heavyweight Tom Cruise returns to the screen with his new lady, Penélope Cruz, and his "Jerry Maguire" writer-director, Cameron Crowe, in "Vanilla Sky."
As the head of a trade organization whose membership includes the major theater chains -- which show all the competing movies -- Fithian is averse to singling out one picture over another, or playing favorites in any way. But he said NATO is, in general, "very excited" about the slate of movies coming to a theater near you this holiday season.
"We'll just have to see how the pictures are received by patrons," he said.
The movie business is benefiting from some economic factors that are hurting other sectors of the leisure industry.
"Forms of leisure activities that involve travel or higher dollars ... are hurting right now," he said. "But movie theaters are both local and affordable. So when some industries suffer because of decreased travel or harder economic times, we do quite well."
In the end, though, Fithian said there are only two factors that make the movie exhibition business successful -- the quality of the movies and the quality of the movie houses.
"If you have both lots of people will come," he said. "If you don't, they won't."