March 09, 2001 at 05:00 AM EST

by Justine Elias and Lori Reese

The weekend box office race should be close but low scoring, as the Julia Roberts / Brad Pitt caper flick ”The Mexican” faces tough competition from newcomer ”15 Minutes.” The plot of the R rated ”Minutes” — about a pair of reality TV obsessed serial killers — is likely to appeal to men more than women, but star Robert De Niro, who plays a celebrity homicide detective, is a strong box office draw for both sexes.

Analysts put the two R rated movies about even — with projected weekend earnings of a middlin’ $15 million — but say novelty and thrills may win out over romance. ”We haven’t had any big, exciting action films yet this year,” Gitesh Pandya of Box Office Guru tells EW.com. ”And ’15 Minutes’ has got Robert De Niro with a gun, which everyone seems to like. Plus, the movie’s advertising campaign has been very strong.” But Robert Bucksbaum of tracking firm Reel Source notes that De Niro’s biggest successes in recent years have been comedies like ”Analyze This” and ”Meet the Parents” rather than dramas — a shift that could limit his new movie’s shot at box office glory.

For the younger crowd, there is only one new alternative: ”Get Over It” — Miramax’s romance and high jinks comedy starring Kirsten Dunst. Her last movie, the ensemble cheerleading comedy ”Bring It On,” was an unexpected hit, but the young actress has yet to prove she’s a draw as a solo act, says Bucksbaum. Nevertheless, he thinks ”Get Over It” could score big, anywhere from $6 to 12 million: ”It’s a really fun movie — go in with hardly any expectations, you’re going to go out happy.”

Pandya, noting that Miramax is booking ”Get Over It” into relatively few screens for a nationwide release, says he’d be surprised if ”It” hits $9 million. ”I wouldn’t expect a breakaway hit, but ‘Bring It On’ was a success partly because girls are such an underserved market. Maybe this movie can work, too. Maybe Dunst has coattails.”

Other execs who’ll be REALLY interested in the weekend grosses are those behind two Best Picture hopefuls, ”Traffic” ($93 million gross for USA Films since its December release) and ”Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” ($90 million and counting for Sony Classics).

It’ll be a race to see which, if either, crosses the $100 million blockbuster threshold by Oscar night. ”These two movies, plus ‘Chocolat’ to a lesser extent, have had very strong, durable runs since the nominations were announced,” says Pandya. (The other two nominees, ”Erin Brockovich” and ”Gladiator,” are already on VHS and DVD.) ”Many people who didn’t give these movies a chance are now saying, ‘Well, it’s a Best Picture nominee, I have to at least consider it.’ There is a lot of Oscar gold in a Best Picture nomination.” So THAT’s what they mean when they talk about the golden rule.

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