NEW YORK - The Matrix Reloaded generated $93.3 million at U.S. box offices over the weekend. That's not a record total, but it's close. The Matrix phenomenon hasn't quite ruined movies--but it's close on that score, too.
The sequel to the 1999 science-fiction hit didn't quite match the $114.8 million three-day gross delivered by Spider-Man, a Sony (nyse: SNE - news - people ) release, even though it was shown on a record 8,517 screens across the U.S., all according to studio estimates. It did beat the $90.3 million total put up by Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. It broke the box-office gross record for the first four days (besting Spider-Man), for an R-rated releases (besting Hannibal), for sequels, for its star Keanu Reeves and for movies where the characters are mostly dressed in black (besting Men in Black II). It beat X2: X-Men United, released two weeks ago by Fox, a unit of News Corp. (nyse: NWS - news - people ). The movie is also believed to have broken the record--though this is unofficial--for the number of ways to slice box-office records.
The Matrix Reloaded represents a trend where movies are opened on more and more screens, with more and more hype, where more of that hype is linked to product tie-ins, and where more releases are based on sequels, remakes or comic books. To see what's happening, it's only necessary to compare the The Matrix Reloaded to the original Matrix.
The first movie was released by Warner Bothers, a unit of AOL Time Warner (nyse: AOL - news - people ), in 1999, written and directed by the then little-known Larry and Andy Wachowski. (They had made Bound, another noir thriller--but with lesbians--three years earlier.) It wasn't exactly a sleeper, but nine other movies took in more in their opening weekends that year, including Tarzan, The Mummy, and Pokemon: The First Movie, according to Boxofficemojo.com. But the movie had staying power and proved mightily popular as well as a cult favorite. It grossed $171.5 million in the U.S., the fifth-highest that year.
The first Matrix movie itself was hailed for its inventiveness. Its plot melded cyberspace, fear of authority, state-of-the-art Hong Kong-style fight scenes and, of course, a leather-clad heroine. Roger Ebert, for instance, called it "visually dazzling cyberadventure, full of kinetic excitement." This time the special effects are, by most accounts, even more special, but the movie itself is much worse. David Edelstein, the movie critic for Slate, was a big fan of the original. But he calls Reloaded "as messy and flat-footed as its predecessor is nimble and shapely. It's an ugly, bloated, repetitive movie that builds to a punch line that should have come an hour earlier (at least)."
Still, as Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) said in the first film, "The Matrix is everywhere; it's all around us." Reloaded opened with huge fanfare, primed by product tie-ins with Cadillac, a unit of General Motors (nyse: GM - news - people ), Heineken (otc: HINKY - news - people ), Samsung and Ducati (nyse: DMH - news - people ). The marketing budget is reportedly $50 million. Fans can buy the sunglasses. In another sign of the times, the film is showing on two screens at Angelika Film Centers in Houston and New York, venues normally devoted to low-budget and non-U.S. releases.
Reloaded is not the first production to rely on over-the-top publicity, but it accelerates the trend where more and more of the major releases are based on comic books or old television shows or movies already made--whether sequels or remakes. In 1993, just one of the top ten grossing movies, The Fugitive, was based on an old television show. In 1998, there were two remakes among the top ten, Doctor Doolittle and Godzilla.
Last year, the top ten included five sequels and one comic book.
Hollywood, of course, has long been about giving the people what they want. If there wasn't a huge demand for The Matrix Reloaded, it wouldn't be in 8,500-plus screens. But even a short time ago, Hollywood was better at selling what was new. Now it is repackaging the old, and with no end in sight. The third Matrix is already slated for November.
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