The question of the summer isn’t which castaway will last the longest on CBS’ ”Survivor,” but which blockbuster –”The Patriot” or ”The Perfect Storm” — will win the box office battle this Fourth of July weekend. ”The Patriot,” Sony’s $80 million Revolutionary War epic starring Mel Gibson, opens today in 3,000 theaters, while Warner Bros.’ $100 million ”Storm” — with George Clooney and Mark Wahlberg as courageous New England fisherman — follows two days later in 3,200 theaters. ”Usually high profile movies stay away from each other’s release dates,” says box office tracker Robert Bucksbaum. ”This just never happens.”
At least not recently. The past four July 4 weekends have seen major films score big at the box office by opening with little or no competition. For the trivia buffs among you, they are 1999’s ”Wild Wild West” ($36.4 million), ’98’s ”Armageddon” ($36.1 million), ’97’s ”Men In Black” ($51.1 million), and ’96’s ”Independence Day” ($50.2 million).
So which flick will lure audiences away from family barbecues this year? Movie analysts think the weekend battle belongs to ”Storm,” but say ”Patriot” will win the summer war. One key reason is their MPAA ratings. The computer-generated hurricane helped ”Storm” earn a PG-13 — a rating vacationing parents are likely to approve of — while ”Patriot”’s many scenes of guerrilla warfare contributed to its R rating. ”Families like to stay together over holidays, so an R-rated movie is automatically not going to do as well,” says Bucksbaum.
Media analyst Rich Ingrassia agrees that the PG-13 ”Storm” has the edge this weekend. For one thing, it’s repeat business from out-of-school adolescents that drives summer movie success — and it’s harder than ever for the under 17 crowd to buy tickets to R-rated films. Plus, ”Storm” has a handsome reason for youngsters to keep coming back: ”Mark Wahlberg appeals to obsessed teens,” especially females, he says. And although one of ”Patriot”’s subplots is a romance between Heath Ledger, the 21 year old hottie from ”10 Things I Hate About You,” and young newcomer Lisa Brenner, Ingrassia says the actors aren’t familiar enough to generate a Kate-and-Leo like buzz.
Another deciding element could be the movies’ running times: ”Storm” clocks in at 128 minutes — about average for films nowadays — while ”Patriot” is 32 minutes longer. ”’Patriot’ will suffer 15 percent losses right off the bat for being long and R,” says Ingrassia. ”The very basic mechanics of a longer movie is that you can’t screen it as often, which means less traffic.”
But won’t ”Patriot” get a boost from its more favorable advance buzz and two day head start in theaters? Maybe not. Even if ”Storm” takes a hit from most critics (early reviews have been lukewarm), the two analysts still think opening weekend audiences will flock to a true tale of contemporary heroes facing a monster hurricane. ”Everybody wants to see what happens to that big wave from the trailer,” says Bucksbaum. ”There’s not as much awesome fascination with war movies like there is with real-life disasters.”
And because the studios’ official box office count doesn’t begin until Friday, ”Patriot”’s two extra days won’t count. The bottom line: Bucksbaum predicts that ”Storm” will make a bigger initial splash, taking in $55 million this weekend, with ”Patriot” coming in second with $36 million. Ingrassia, however, thinks it’ll be a smaller margin: ”Storm” — $35 million, ”Patriot” — $30 million.
Over the long haul, though, ”The Patriot” seems destined for greater summer glory. It’s an uplifting, crowd pleasing adventure with hissable villains, while ”Storm” — based on a cerebral nonfiction best-seller by Sebastian Junger — is a lot more grim in its outlook. So, even after teen audiences have been diverted from ”Storm” to ”The X-Men” and other lighter summer fare, the older crowd will still be buying tickets for ”The Patriot.” ”I’d put my money on ‘Patriot’ over the next few months,” says Ingrassia. ”But they’re both going to make their studios happy.”