"Mission: Impossible III" opening disappoints
The spy thriller sold $48 million worth of tickets in its first three days, but had been expected to gross between $60 million and $70.

LOS ANGELES, May 7 (Reuters) - "Mission: Impossible III," the first big action film of the summer, opened disappointingly at the weekend box office in North American, despite a whirlwind publicity tour by its pricey star, Tom Cruise.

The spy thriller sold $48 million worth of tickets in its first three days in theaters across the United States and Canada, distributor Paramount Pictures said on Sunday.

The Viacom Inc. (Research)-owned studio said the figure was within its expectations of a bow in the $50 million range, but it was gratified by the international showing, where it earned $70 million after opening virtually everywhere except Japan and India. The movie did bomb in Germany, where Cruise has historically had a tough time, the studio said. The movie cost just under $150 million to make.

Rival studios said they had expected the film to open to at least $60 million domestically. Industry analyst Brandon Gray at boxofficemojo.com said he had expected the movie to kick off with about $70 million, which is where the last two opened after adjusting for ticket price inflation.

"A truly successful sequel needs to open bigger than its predecessor," Gray said, noting that follow-up movies usually burn out more quickly.

He doubted that Cruise's unconventional antics in the past year -- such as jumping on talk show host Oprah Winfrey's couch and his strident support of Scientology -- played a role in the film's underperformance, and instead pointed the finger at a marketing campaign that made the movie seem less fun than its predecessors.

Comparing North American sales with those of the first two "Mission" films is not easy, as those opened during the Memorial Day holiday weekends at the end of May when overall business was stronger.

The first film, directed in 1996 by Brian De Palma, earned an unadjusted $45.4 million during the Friday-to-Sunday period, but its figures would have been higher if not for Tuesday previews and a Wednesday opening. It ended up with $180.9 million. Four years later, John Woo's sequel earned $57.8 million for the same period, ending up with $215.4 million.

The new film ranks No. 2 among North American openings this year, far behind "Ice Age: The Meltdown" with $68 million a month ago, and only $8 million ahead of "Scary Movie 4."

It marks the first release to get the green light from the studio's new chairman and chief executive, former talent manager Brad Grey, who came aboard early last year after the previous regime suffered through several years of underperforming pictures.

Paramount's president of worldwide marketing, distribution and operations, Rob Moore, preferred to use last year's "Batman Begins" as his yardstick, since both movies resurrected a dormant franchise. The Caped Crusader opened to $48.7 million on its way to $205 million.

The critically acclaimed film marks Cruise's third turn as superspy Ethan Hunt. Oscar-winner Philip Seymour Hoffman ("Capote") played the bad guy. After plugging the movie at several major cities overseas, Cruise spent Wednesday on an unusual mission in New York leading media and fans on a wild goose chase around the city.

The film also marks the feature directing debut of TV veteran J.J. Abrams, creator of such shows as "Alias" and "Lost." He stepped in after David Fincher and then Joe Carnahan exited. That was not the only behind-the-scenes drama. Cruise reportedly had to cut his fee after Paramount's new bosses balked at the escalating budget.

While there were some reports that the youthful 43-year-old was losing his female fan base, Paramount said the demographics were exactly the same for all three "Mission" movies: 64 percent of viewers were aged 25 and older, and 56 percent were male. Top of page

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