X-Men, Bryan Singer's $75m version of the Marvel Comics' phenomenon, raked in more money at the weekend box office than any other non-sequel in film history, more or less ensuring that distributor 20th Century Fox will finish the summer with a cost-efficient blockbuster capable of spawning an entire franchise of sequels.
Starting out on Friday with a $21m gross and finishing the weekend with a collective take of $57.5m, X-Men's opening performance at North American theatres trails that of only three films, all of them follow-ups to already proven box office action spectacles: The Lost World: Jurassic Park; Star Wars: Episode 1 - The Phantom Menace and, by a pip-squeak, this summer's Mission: Impossible 2.
Inevitably, X-Men's superhero theme chimed best with male audiences who made up 65% of the initial audience according to Friday exit poles. Less predictably, it played equally well with males either side of 25, an indication perhaps of the enduring appeal of the comic book series that was created by the celebrated writer-artist team of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby as far back as 1963.
Even today, Marvel sells more than thirty million X-Men comic-book titles a year, creating a ready-made constituency of Internet-savvy fanatics who could just as easily have used the Web to destroy the movie version had they felt betrayed by Singer's interpretation. In the end, this hardcore following appears to have largely embraced the big screen transition, eagerly posting electronic notes by the tens of thousands even in the face of mostly tepid American newspaper reviews.
X-Men's per-screen average of slightly more than $19,000 is all the more remarkable given the absence of household names other than, perhaps, Star Trek's Patrick Stewart. The rest of the eclectic cast, the majority of them playing genetic mutants with special powers and black leather costumes, was made up of either well-regarded supporting actors better known on the indie circuit or else complete unknowns. They include Ian McKellen, Famke Janssen, Halle Berry, Bruce Davison, Anna Paquin, James Marsden, Dutch supermodel Rebecca Romijn-Stamos, professional wrestler Tyler Mane and Australian newcomer Hugh Jackman who replaced Dougray Scott in the role of Wolverine. (As it happened, X-Men opened simultaneously in Australia, where Jackman's presence may have helped in creating and then converting the early buzz into reportedly solid box office numbers). As part of their contracts, the entire cast signed on for two sequels.
That X-Men's unexpected success - even Fox enthusiasts would have been elated with a gross of around $40m - followed so hard on the heels of Bill Mechanic's sudden ouster as studio chief is one of those ironies that has now become almost commonplace in recent Hollywood lore. The moment top-level executives are forced to step down invariably coincides with one of their shining periods at the box office.
X-Men, another ensemble triumph for Bryan Singer who made his name with The Usual Suspects but faltered in industry eyes with his two-handed drama Apt Pupil, accounted for 38.6% of the overall weekend gross. The film helped the box office leap some 39% beyond the corresponding period last year when Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut debuted in the US.
With no other new wide-release film to compete against, X-Men would have had the field pretty much to itself had holdovers such as Scary Movie, The Perfect Storm and The Patriot not also demonstrated strong legs at what is proving a sizzling July at the domestic box office. Scary Movie, Dimension's low-budget no-holds-barred spoof, slipped around 40% but has still managed to take in nearly $90m after just ten days on release. The Perfect Storm's aggregate gross now stands at nearly $129m
Outside the top twelve box office films, two new independent films showed promising signs on limited release. Miguel Arteta's micro-budget digital video production Chuck & Buck, a darkly creepy comedy about stalking that was picked up by Artisan Entertainment at this year's Sundance Film Festival, averaged $10,000 at each of the seven theatres it played during opening weekend. And another festival staple, the Canadian melodrama The Five Senses, averaged $14,000 at each of the New York City locations where it played for Fine Line Features.
Estimated figures for the North American box office July 14-16: