'Hannibal' Chews Up Record Books

Monday, February 12th 2001, 12:00 am

By: News On 6

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Hannibal Lecter made mincemeat of the competition — and the record book.

The grisly ``Hannibal,'' sequel to ``The Silence of the Lambs,'' debuted with a colossal $58 million in its first three days. It grossed more than the next 15 movies combined, according to industry estimates Sunday, and easily beat the $34.7 million record for a February opening set by ``Scream 3'' last year.

Only two other movies, ``The Lost World: Jurassic Park'' and ``Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace,'' grossed more in their first three-day weekends. ``Hannibal'' also had the best opening ever for an R-rated movie, topping the $42.3 million debut of ``Scary Movie'' last summer.

``Hannibal'' was ``the most widely anticipated followup since 'Phantom Menace,' and it's the return of one of the greatest cinematic characters of all time,'' said Paul Dergarabedian, president of Exhibitor Relations Co. Inc., which tracks the box office. ``It proved to be an irresistible combination to moviegoers.''

``The Wedding Planner,'' No. 1 for the previous two weekends, slipped to second place with $7.8 million.

The weekend's only other big premiere was the comedy ``Saving Silverman,'' which opened in third place with $7.4 million.

The martial arts epic ``Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon'' took in $5.1 million and topped $60 million over the weekend to pass ``Life Is Beautiful'' as the domestic box-office champ among foreign-language films.

The overall box office rose again, with the top 12 movies grossing $107.6 million, up 43 percent compared with the same weekend in 2000. The box office has increased every weekend this year.

Playing in 3,230 theaters, ``Hannibal'' averaged a stellar $17,957 per cinema, compared with a $3,000 average in 2,467 theaters for ``Saving Silverman.''

Based on the best-selling sequel by Thomas Harris, ``Hannibal'' follows Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) a decade after ``Silence of the Lambs'' as one of his old victims plots revenge against the serial killer.

'``Hannibal' just devoured everybody,'' said Larry Gleason, president of worldwide distribution for MGM.

Since ``Silence of the Lambs,'' Lecter has become a pop-culture icon, an almost universally recognized bogeyman.

``It's like Batman or Superman,'' Gleason said. ``You don't have to say much more than 'Hannibal.' It's truly become part of the worldwide vocabulary.''

MGM, which co-produced ``Hannibal'' with Universal, sorely needed a success. Struggling to overcome more than a decade of financial troubles and shifts in ownership and management, MGM's last hit was in 1999 with the James Bond flick ``The World Is Not Enough.''

Audiences did not seem to care that Hopkins was the only principal to return from ``Silence of the Lambs.'' Julianne Moore subbed for Jodie Foster as FBI agent Clarice Starling, while Ridley Scott (``Gladiator'') succeeded Jonathan Demme as director.

Moviegoers also were not swayed by ``Hannibal's'' mixed reviews. Many critics said it was weak compared to its predecessor. Some critics were nauseated by a gruesome banquet scene at the end of ``Hannibal.''

But that scene simply whetted audience appetites, Dergarabedian said.

``The pre-release buzz about the gore in the final scene, that just added to the mystique,'' Dergarabedian said.

Estimated ticket sales for Friday through Sunday at North American theaters, according to Exhibitor Relations Co. Inc. Final figures were to be released Monday.

1. ``Hannibal,'' $58 million.

2. ``The Wedding Planner,'' $7.8 million.

3. ``Saving Silverman,'' $7.4 million.

4. ``Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,'' $5.1 million.

5. ``Cast Away,'' $5 million.

6. ``Save the Last Dance,'' $4.8 million.

7. ``Traffic,'' $4.4 million.

8. ``Valentine,'' $3.8 million.

9. ``Chocolat,'' $3.1 million.

10. ``O Brother, Where Art Thou?,'' $3 million.

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