Originally created 02/16/99

Costner's 'Message' knocks off 'Payback'



LOS ANGELES -- Kevin Costner's romantic drama "Message in a Bottle" edged out the revenge film "Payback" at the weekend box office while new family fare also did well, according to industry estimates Monday.

"Message in a Bottle" opened with $19.1 million in ticket sales from Friday through Monday, knocking the Mel Gibson action piece into second place in its second week with $18.4 million.

Timed for Valentine's Day, "Message" stars Costner as a boat builder whose bottled notes to his dead wife win the heart of a new love, played by Robin Wright Penn. It was among three new films for the Presidents Day weekend as the year's box office began to heat up following the usual slow start.

"My Favorite Martian," based on the 1960s TV sitcom, debuted in third place with $11.1 million, while "Blast from the Past" opened at No. 5 with $9.7 million, according to Exhibitor Relations Co. "Blast" stars Brendan Fraser as a man who grows up in a bomb shelter and emerges into modern-day Los Angeles, where he meets Alicia Silverstone.

"Martian" benefited from timing and nostalgia, said Chuck Viane, general sales manager for Buena Vista Pictures.

"There hadn't been a new family film since Christmas," he said. "The market was open and ready for us."

"Shakespeare in Love," moving into wider release, benefited from strong word of mouth and the 13 Oscar nominations it garnered last week. It was in sixth place with $9.5 million over four days after adding more than 1,000 screens.

"Life is Beautiful," which is up for best picture, was not in the top 10, but both it and "Shakespeare" saw strong jumps in their per-screen averages, meaning they generally drew larger audiences to each showing.

By comparison, the reissued "Saving Private Ryan," which had 11 nominations, only held its own. The acclaimed war film was in seventh place with $4 million for four days. "The Thin Red Line," with seven nominations, finished out of the Top 10.

Teen films that were supreme a few weeks ago saw their audiences dip in the wake of the new fare. "She's All That" fell from second to fourth place with $10.2 million while "Varsity Blues" plummeted to No. 10 with $3.4 million.

"Simply Irresistible," starring Sarah Michelle Gellar of television's "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," tanked after a disappointing opening. It fell from the top 10 list after just two weeks.

"A Civil Action," "Stepmom" and "You've Got Mail" also left the list.

Another limited release, the quirky comedy "Rushmore," added several hundred theaters in its second week and came in at No. 8 with $3.7 million. Buena Vista planned to expand the movie yet again this week.

"Patch Adams" fell from third to ninth place with $3.6 million.

Overall, it was a slower Presidents Day holiday for movies than last year, when "Titanic" was sinking box office records. The top 12 films took in $97.7 million, down 14.8 percent from the previous holiday.

Top 10 movies

Here are estimated grosses at North American theaters for Friday through Monday. Final figures were expected Tuesday:

1. "Message in a Bottle," $19.1 million.

2. "Payback," $18.4 million.

3. "My Favorite Martian," $11.1 million.

4. "She's All That," $10.2 million.

5. "Blast from the Past," $9.7 million.

6. "Shakespeare in Love," $9.5 million.

7. "Saving Private Ryan," $4 million.

8. "Rushmore," $3.7 million.

9. "Patch Adams," $3.6 million.

10. "Varsity Blues," $3.4 million.