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<i>Witch</i> Casts Spell On <i>Bride</i>

Julia Roberts and Richard Gere came down the aisle strongly in their romantic reunion, as Runaway Bride opened in first place at the weekend box office.

The Blair Witch Project also cast a spell on audiences when it hit wide release after two weeks of packed houses in only a handful of theaters.

Runaway Bride took in $34.5 million followed by Blair Witch with $28.5 million, according to industry estimates Sunday. But the take per screen for Blair Witch was more than twice that of Runaway Bride. Final figures were to be released Monday.

Director Renny Harlin's high-tech shark fest Deep Blue Sea debuted in third place with $18.6 million, while the gothic ghost story The Haunting slipped from first to fourth, taking in $15.1 million in its second weekend.

"The horror genre in itself is on fire," said Robert Bucksbaum, a movie analyst with Reel Source Inc. "That's definitely what moviegoers want to see these days."

Overall, the top dozen movies grossed $136.8 million, up a third from the same weekend a year ago, according to Exhibitor Relations Co. Inc., which tracks box office figures.

A mock documentary told through footage

Blair Witch Project
supposedly left behind by three vanished witch hunters, Blair Witch averaged $25,886 a screen in 1,101 theaters. By comparison Runaway Bride, playing in nearly three times as many theaters, averaged $10,925 a screen.

"Their numbers were phenomenal," said Wayne Lewellen, president of Paramount, which released Runaway Bride.

Blair Witch has a shot at taking the No. 1 spot at the box office next weekend when it expands to about 2,000 theaters.

However, Lewellen expects Bride to hold up well because it plays to a different audience. The comedy, which reunites Roberts and Gere for the first time since 1990's Pretty Woman, is drawing mostly women 25 and older while Blair Witch's audience largely consists of young males.

Runaway Bride was Roberts' top opening ever, easily beating her most recent two releases Notting Hill ($27.7 million) and Stepmom ($19.1 million). Pretty Woman opened in first place with $11.3 million and went on to gross $178.4 million.

Blair Witch, shot for $60,000, was bought for $1 million by Artisan Entertainment, which pumped an additional $300,000 into the movie to prepare it for release, Artisan President Amir Malin said.

Artisan expects the movie to take in more than $100 million, but when it was purchased, "I don't think a discussion of a $100-million box office ever rolled out of anybody's mouth," Malin said.

"It's a testament to thfilm and the marketing that you don't need to make films for $100 million to generate a huge gross," he added.

Crafty marketing of the film as a pseudo-documentary has had audiences debating whether the movie was fact or fiction.

Blair Witch has earned $35.4 million in its first three weeks. The previous top hit for Artisan was Wes Craven's Wishmaster, which took in $18.2 million.

Estimated grosses for Friday through Sunday at North American theaters, according to Exhibitor Relations Co. Inc.

  1. Runaway Bride, $34.5 million.
  2. The Blair Witch Project, $28.5 million.
  3. Deep Blue Sea, $18.6 million.
  4. The Haunting, $15.1 million.
  5. Inspector Gadget, $14 million.
  6. American Pie, $6.7 million.
  7. Eyes Wide Shut, $4.4 million.
  8. Big Daddy, $3.5 million.
  9. Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace, $3.4 million.
  10. Tarzan, $3 million.