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This spring's box office winners and losers

This spring’s box office winners and losers — ”Erin Brockovich” was a surprise hit for Julia Roberts, while Leonardo DiCaprio tanked in ”The Beach”

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Erin Brockovich? What kind of name is that for a blockbuster? Scream 3, Rules of Engagement — now, those sound like smashes. Erin Brockovich has the ring of a whooping-cough attack. Susannah Grant knew this; hired by exec producer Carla Santos Shamberg to pen the true-life tale of a single mom-turned- corporate ball-buster, Grant called her script Raising Hell. But Shamberg wouldn’t let Erin Brockovich go. When Universal said the title wasn’t testing well, Shamberg held firm, buoyed by history. ”I had gone through an entire film guide and I noticed films named after the protagonist are actually very memorable,” says Shamberg, citing Norma Rae and Forrest Gump. ”When you name a film after a character, it focuses the audience.”

Shamberg must have skipped the entries on Julia Roberts’ Mary Reilly and Michael Collins, but no matter; Erin Brockovich had our Pretty Woman doing that sassy, brassy thing that we love to see her do (and in a hootchie-mama wardrobe to boot!) — to the tune of $116 million (and counting). In fact, when it came to the spring box office, only tried-and-true formulas really seemed to deliver. Hollywood scored with proven brands like Dimenson’s Scream 3 (which didn’t take in as much as its two $100 million-grossing predecessors) and New Line’s Next Friday (which impressively doubled Friday’s box office take), but failed to profit by stretching its stars. Despite being shirtless much of the time, an edgier Leonardo DiCaprio couldn’t get audiences to The Beach. Maybe his legions were saving their money for the new ‘N Sync album — or maybe they just got carded at the door. ”The question for any young actor is, as he gets older, will his audience continue with him?” says Tom Sherak, chairman of Twentieth Century Fox Domestic Film Group. ”A lot of [Leo’s fans] are still young. This was an R-rated film. That’s a problem.”

Still, Sherak says Fox will make money off The Beach, thanks to its $96 million overseas take. That’s the thing with 2000’s early offerings; like American Beauty, you have to look closer. Touchstone’s Mission to Mars, the season’s third-biggest grosser, is actually a flop in relation to its cost (a reported $90 million), but USA Films’ Pitch Black, No. 15 on the list, is a hit for the same reason (cost: an estimated $23 million). ”Spring is when the ‘bet big, win big’ strategy is not in play,” says Paul Dergarabedian, president of Exhibitor Relations. ”It’s a safe haven for highly targeted niche films that need more breathing space.”

It’s also a profitable place for a 1999 film suddenly showered with Oscar nods. DreamWorks’ American Beauty, which had earned $74.8 million before the nominations, has taken in $128.8 million. Miramax’s The Cider House Rules milked $34 million more out of its nods, while Hilary Swank helped Fox Searchlight’s Boys Don’t Cry break into new markets and boost its box office from a prenominations $3.7 million to an $11.5 million total.

Now for the other winners among the films released this year…

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