''Deep Impact'' opens big -- The summer's first blockbuster breaks records

Someone alert Nova: Tests have shown that a comet crashing into the earth causes as much damage as a rampaging Midwestern tornado. Well, box office damage, at least. Last weekend, Deep Impact, DreamWorks and Paramount’s death-from-above disaster flick, kicked off the summer movie season with a cosmic bang, grossing a jaw-dropping $41.2 million in its first weekend. It set a new three-day May opening record, eclipsing Twister‘s $41.1 million take in 1996. Considering that Twister ended up with a domestic gross of $241.7 million, that’s pretty heady company for what until now was considered only the second-best Chicken Little film of the year. ”We’re all surprised,” says John Krier, president of the box office research firm Exhibitor Relations. ”Nobody had any idea it was going to do that kind of business.”

Indeed, going into the weekend, even the most optimistic tracking studies had Impact opening in the thirtysomething-million range. Krier chalks up the big numbers to a competition-free weekend — the No. 2 film, City of Angels, was in its fifth week of release — and to residual hype from the real-life asteroid scare that raced through the nation’s headlines in March. Paramount’s official explanation, according to marketing president Arthur Cohen, is that ”it was a great date and a combination of well-timed marketing elements.” But a source inside the studio is much blunter: ”You really want to know what opened the movie? The wave [that wipes out New York City]. We put it in the trailer and the TV spots. That’s the only reason it opened. We all know it.”

Whatever the factors, the question now is, What does this mean for the rest of the summer? ”This isn’t just good for Paramount and DreamWorks,” says Twentieth Domestic Film Group chairman Tom Sherak. ”It’s good for the industry. You enjoy yourself at the movies, you want to know what else is out there.” Unless what’s out there is another apocalyptic disaster movie. Industry experts point out that Disney, whose blockbuster hopes rest on its asteroid thriller Armageddon (opening Fourth of July week), can’t be too thrilled about Impact‘s impact. Until now, Armageddon, with its bigger stars (including Bruce Willis, Ben Affleck, and Liv Tyler), bigger budget ($100 million-plus, compared with Impact’s $80 million), and bigger action sequences, was considered the better bet of the two films. Now Armageddon runs the risk of being seen as simply the other earth-shattering film. ”Think about those volcano movies last year,” says Ed Mintz, president of the audience-polling firm CinemaScore. ”Dante’s Peak [which came out first] did okay, but then Volcano died.” Adds Sherak, whose studio released Volcano, ”Nobody likes to be second.”

For his part, Armageddon director Michael Bay seems unconcerned. ”There’s a lot of time between the two movies, and ours is really different,” he says. ”I mean, at least you laugh in our movie.”

Bay may have a point. Mintz and other analysts note that Impact‘s weepy tone, uncharacteristically somber for a summer popcorn flick, may be what’s causing mixed word of mouth on the film; its CinemaScore grade after the first weekend was a mediocre B, not a good omen. Says Krier, ”I’m prepared for a substantial reduction the second week.” And speaking of obstacles, that 800-pound gorilla, er, lizard known as Godzilla stomps into multiplexes May 20. Even the sunniest supporter has to admit that that gives Impact a shelf life of only a week and a half. All of which indicates that even though Impact ended the world with a bang, it may still go out with a whimper.

(Additional reporting by Anita M. Busch)

Deep Impact
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