'Van Helsing' Stakes Out Solid Summer Start
HOLLYWOOD (Box Office Mojo)—Van Helsing slayed not only vampires but vitriolic buzz to deliver a promising start to the summer movie season.

The $160 million tent pole starring Hugh Jackman drew $51.7 million—$2.5 million less than distributor Universal estimate on Sunday—from 3,575 theaters and over 6,000 prints, the most Universal has ever released. The opening lands between The Mummy's $43.4 million (also a May 7 bow) and The Mummy Returns' $68.1 million, Universal's other horror icon revivals directed by Stephen Sommers. Not only that, it launched in 41 territories overseas, adding an $55.2 million to the coffers to bring its global weekend to $106.9 million.

As far as summer kick-offs go, Van Helsing is the biggest non-sequel, non-comic book one ever, topping The Mummy in raw numbers—a stretch and a mouthful of a record to be sure but still important for context. (However, if one adjusts for ticket price inflation, The Mummy would be about the same.) It was nowhere near Spider-Man ($114.8 million) and X2: X-Men United ($85.6 million), heights it could not have realistically achieved without the enormous built-in fanbases they had.

According to studio research, the audience skewed 58% male and reached a broad age range with 54% of patrons age 25 and older. Parents made up 20% of all moviegoers, and those under the age of 16 liked the picture the most as over 90% of them rated it "excellent" or "very good." Overall Van Helsing's demos and scores were similar to The Mummy, while people's main reason to see it, "action and special effects," was identical.

"It looked like a rollercoaster ride, which is what it is," Universal's head of distribution Nikki Rocco told Box Office Mojo, also citing the trailer, the ads and Sommers' ability to craft crowd pleasers as also part of the allure.

Universal is one of the top studios at marketing. While the Van Helsing campaign perhaps isn't the best example of this, it nonetheless was relentless (like Sommers' use of CGI) and hit the right notes for an intended blockbuster. Just as with The Mummy movies, "Adventure"* was the operative word here, not "Horror." Jackman's quips and the musical cues contributed to a swashbuckling tone in the trailer despite the dark setting—summer openers have tended to be colorful or brightly lit.

Breaking the weekend down, Van Helsing pulled in $19.5 million on Friday and inched up 0.6% on Saturday to $19.6 million. "When you open to $19.5 million on Friday, you just hope you're at least flat on Saturday," Rocco noted. Universal had projected a 25% Sunday dip to $14.9 million, but it wound up falling 35.9% to $12.6 million.

Rocco expects a 50% drop next weekend simply because that's the industry norm nowadays. "If we drop less, we'll be celebrating," she said. "But we're celebrating anyway. Whatever happens next week, we did over $100 million in three days globally."

Because of its position as the first big summer movie, its enormous budget in a season rife with them, its marketing blitz and the many spin-offs dependent on its success (including a TV series on NBC), Van Helsing naturally was under intense scrutiny by the media and Hollywood. Judging by the buzz and most reviews, they had their skewers ready for the public roast if Van Helsing wasn't a monster smash. Its opening weekend should fend them off for now and suggests the picture's final gross should end up between $130 million and $150 million. Astronomical budgets for these kinds of movies aren't as risky as they once were, given the rise of DVD and the potency of overseas box office among other streams of revenue.

"The fact is we're very responsible with our budgets," Rocco explained, reiterating the importance of ancillary markets where such investments pay off big time. "It's not just the domestic box office for a movie like this."

Before the weekend, Universal counteracted the bad press by stressing that Van Helsing was not a sequel and not based on a comic book and therefore more challenging to sell to the public than other tent poles. But all non-sequel, non-comic book movies face that problem, and Van Helsing is by no means an original. It's very much a franchise (Dracula, Frankenstein, even Sommers' Mummy connection) and has the feel of familiarity. Van Helsing himself can hardly be called an obscure character, especially to anyone who has seen a Dracula movie.

Looking ahead to Universal's June releases, Rocco says she'll try to get as many theaters as she can for June 11's Vin Diesel vehicle The Chronicles of Riddick—over 3,000—but don't expect something as wide as Van Helsing given the much greater competition for screens the heat of summer brings. Director Jean-Jacques Annaud's tiger movie Two Brothers will be a "normal wide release" on June 25.

* Van Helsing's taglines are "Adventure Lives Forever" and "Adventure Has a New Name." The Mummy Returns had "Adventure is Reborn" and was called "adventure that will never die." The Mummy was dubbed an "adventure beyond life and time."


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