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Strong ‘Smith’ fails to offset weak overall box office

Scott Bowles USA Today

Even the beauty of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie couldn’t conquer the beast of a slump that still throttles Hollywood.

Their action film, “Mr. & Mrs. Smith,” rang up an impressive $51.1 million to top the weekend box office, according to studio estimates.

But it wasn’t enough to end the industry’s attendance slide. For the 16th straight weekend, ticket sales fell behind last year’s pace – the second-worst ticket sales slump in Hollywood’s modern history.

If next weekend – which will include “Batman Begins,” opening Wednesday – does not break the losing streak, it will tie Hollywood’s all-time record.

” ‘Batman’ is going to have to save the day,” says Paul Dergarabedian of Exhibitor Relations, a box-office tracking firm. “He’s our last hope to not have 2005 go down in the record books.”

One reason for the slide is the box office’s lack of depth. On the same weekend last year, five films took in more than $20 million.

This weekend, only “Smith “cracked $20 million. “Madagascar” was second with $17 million, followed by “Star Wars, Episode III: Revenge of the Sith,” which took in $15 million.

The weekend’s other new wide releases – “The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl in 3-D” ($12.5 million), “The Honeymooners” ($6 million) and “High Tension” ($2 million) – opened weakly.

Analysts credit 20th Century Fox with canny marketing for “Mr. & Mrs. Smith,” particularly its handling of the rumored relationship between Pitt and Jolie, who play husband-and-wife assassins.

Pitt and his real-life wife, Jennifer Aniston, separated in January after 4 1/2 years of marriage.

Both he and Jolie declined to do much publicity for the film, opting instead for a handful of high-profile interviews such as Pitt’s appearance last week on ABC’s “Primetime Live.”

The coy publicity campaign – combined with tabloid speculation about whether the two were an item – whetted the public’s appetite just enough.

“I don’t know if the tabloids helped,” says Bruce Snyder, Fox’s head of distribution. “But obviously they didn’t do to us what they did to ‘Gigli’ ” – the 2003 flop derailed in part by the public romance of Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez.

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