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Surprise! Spartans Assault Box Office

Category: 300 News
Article Date: March 12, 2007 | Publication: New York Times | Author: MICHAEL CIEPLY

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LOS ANGELES, March 11 Even a film business that expects big numbers is likely to be double-checking the box-office receipts for Warner Brothers' "300" on Monday and asking, "What just happened?"

The sword-and-sandals epic posted an estimated $70 million in ticket sales Friday through Sunday as it surged past hostile critics and industry expectations to become the fourth surprise hit in a winter season that began with a limp.

"We had projected it coming in around the mid-30s," said Dan Fellman, Warner's president of theatrical distribution, referring to the $30 million mark. "It's staggering."

The movie defied the odds in that it had no star bigger than the Scottish actor Gerard Butler ("The Phantom of the Opera"), Mr. Fellman said, it was made by the relatively untested director Zack Snyder ("Dawn of the Dead") and it carried the added handicap of an R rating.

The opening of "300" was the third largest for an R-rated film, behind "The Matrix Reloaded," which posted about $91.8 million in ticket sales on its first weekend in 2003, and "The Passion of the Christ," which opened to about $84 million a year later.

When the final tallies are in on Monday, Mr. Fellman said, Hollywood's overall box office for the year will have moved comfortably ahead of last year's pace after running slightly better than even through last week, mostly thanks to a series of recent films that, by conventional wisdom, were not supposed to be hits.

Disney's "Wild Hogs," a comedy that put stars as long in the tooth as John Travolta and Tim Allen on motorcycles, opened to nearly $40 million in ticket sales a week ago and picked up $28 million more this weekend, for a total of more than $77 million. Two weeks before that, "Ghost Rider," with Nicolas Cage, surprised its distributors at Sony Pictures Entertainment with a $45 million weekend, and then went on to take in total domestic receipts of about $104 million through Sunday.

Much the same happened with "Norbit," a critically derided comedy in which Eddie Murphy played fat and female. That film took in $34 million on its first weekend in early February for DreamWorks and Paramount, on its way to about $88 million as of Sunday.

"Lines beget lines," as viewers of one hit are exposed to trailers for the next, Chuck Viane, president of domestic distribution for Disney's Buena Vista unit, said.

During a telephone news conference on Tuesday, Dan Glickman, chairman of the Motion Picture Association of America, cautiously predicted that eagerly awaited sequels coming later this year "Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End," "Spider-Man 3," "Shrek the Third," "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix" would push the 2007 United States box-office total beyond last year's $9.49 billion, which in turn was up 5.5 percent from 2005.

But surprises like "300" can be even more lucrative than sequels. Part of the reason is lower budgets; Mr. Fellman placed the production cost of "300" at about $64 million, compared with $150 million or more for other blockbusters. Newly minted successes also tend to haul in proportionally more money from DVD sales and other aftermarkets (pay-television and airplane sales, for example) than do follow-up films.

Critics were divided on the merits of Mr. Snyder's adaptation of Frank Miller and Lynn Varley's graphic novel about the Spartans' stand against the Persians at Thermopylae, which A. O. Scott's review in The New York Times described as "about as violent as 'Apocalypto' and twice as stupid." (An admiring Richard Roeper, of The Chicago Sun-Times, called it "gorgeous to behold.") Still, ticket buyers were lining up for showings that sold out on various electronic services.

Momentum had been building among fans since the film was introduced at last year's Comic-Con International comic book and popular arts convention. It received a boost about a month ago when a trailer highlighting the movie's stylized, computer-assisted visual approach caught fire on MySpace. Mr. Snyder and his collaborators also helped broaden the film's appeal among women by expanding a subplot, about the Spartan queen Gorgo.

"300" has been Hollywood's best March opening, not adjusted for inflation, passing the $68 million mark posted by "Ice Age: The Meltdown," when it opened on March 31 last year and its weekend sales spilled into April. As such, it vindicated Mr. Snyder, who fought to adapt the graphic novel despite initial resistance at Warner, which had a tougher time in 2004 with the ancient epics "Troy" and "Alexander."

"That's the magic of our industry," Mr. Fellman said. "Every once in a while these special moments happen."


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