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''Hunchback'' and ''Harriet'' battle for the top spot

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To outsiders it may have looked like a silly squabble. But to Hollywoodites, the dispute was deadly serious. Last Sunday, when the studios released weekend box office projections, Paramount Pictures predicted that its new kids’ movie, Harriet the Spy, would earn $7.3 million. Disney execs howled, insisting that figure was $1 million too high and that their own Hunchback of Notre Dame would gross $6.5 million and still beat Harriet.

The irony is that the studios weren’t fighting over first place, but fifth. Since many infotainment shows and news programs report results only for each week’s top five films, to rank sixth is to be invisible. And Paramount and Disney had another reason to tussle: Harriet, a Nickelodeon production, promised to establish a new family-film franchise for Paramount; topping Disney’s big summer cartoon would give bragging rights to the upstart.

When actual figures came in Monday, Paramount conceded that Harriet had made $700,000 less than it guessed. Still, Harriet remained fifth, Hunchback sixth. ”Sunday’s estimates were aggressive,” admits Paramount distribution head Wayne Lewellen, who says Paramount based its guesses on the performance of other female-appeal films and denies there was pressure to make sure Nickelodeon’s first film made the top five. Disney won’t comment, but one rival exec says, ”Disney was right, Paramount was wrong. If it was me, I would have made the same complaint.”

”This goes on almost every weekend,” says a veteran box office number cruncher. ”They’re all inclined to overestimate. But Disney and Paramount hate each other, and Disney’s probably disappointed that Hunchback is running behind Pocahontas.”

What got lost in the fracas is that Harriet‘s success surprised even Paramount; before the film opened, the studio had been conservatively hoping for a $4-6 million debut. Laughs Harriet‘s producer, Marykay Powell: ”I’m surprised there was so much anxiety on the part of the mighty Disney. But I think we should make up T-shirts that say, ‘Harriet Whups Hunchback‘s Butt.”’

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