i>SNAKES GOES "HISSSSS"

New Line Cinema landed on its asp over the weekend as the highly hyped Snakes on a Plane, which analysts had expected would take in more than $30 million, earned only about half of that -- an estimated $15.2 million. (Several reports mentioned that the figure also included $1.4 million from Thursday night's 10:00 p.m. screenings.) The studio had hoped that using the Internet as its chief marketing tool would boost ticket sales and save it millions of dollars in traditional costs. New Line's distribution chief, David Tuckerman, told today's (Monday) New York Times that the studio was "a little disappointed" with the box office results. "We'll make money with this picture, it's just more disappointing because of all the inflated expectations," he told the newspaper. "It basically performed like a normal horror movie." Added Exhibitor Relations chief Paul Dergarabedian: "We see that Internet interest in a movie doesn't necessarily translate to good box office." The results no doubt came as a particular disappointment to New Line's parent, Time Warner, whose other film studio, Warner Bros., has been experiencing one of its worst years in recent memory. Meanwhile, Disney's Pirates of the Caribbean added another $5 million to its booty, putting it past the $400 million mark with $401 million.

The top ten films for the weekend, according to studio estimates compiled by Exhibitor Relations:

1. Snakes on a Plane, $15.25 million; 2. Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, $14.1 million; 3. World Trade Center, $10.8 million; 4. Accepted, $10.1 million; 5. Step Up, $9.9 million; 6. Barnyard, $7.5 million; 7. Little Miss Sunshine, $5.7 million; 8. Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest, $5 million; 9. Material Girls, $4.6 million; 10. Pulse, $3.5 million.

TRIBUNE, SUN TIMES CRITICS TO FACE OFF

As Chicago Tribune TV columnist Phil Rosenthal put in on Sunday, "The old tradition of Chicago's two major daily newspapers challenging one another on TV over coming movie releases will be revived, at least for one week." The "tradition" began with the debut of Siskel and Ebert, the syndicated TV series in which Gene Siskel of the Tribune vied with Roger Ebert of the Sun-Times over the worthiness of each weekend's movie releases. When Siskel died in 1999, he was replaced by another Sun-Times writer, Richard Roeper. But during Ebert's recent hospitalization for cancer treatment, he has been spelled by a number of fill-ins, and on Sept. 2, his substitute is scheduled to be Michael Phillips, the movie critic for the Tribune. Rosenthal reported that Ebert himself suggested Phillips. "When we first started talking about possible substitutes, Michael was the first person Roger mentioned," Roeper said. "We're both big fans of his work in the Trib, and I'm looking forward to working with him." Meanwhile, Ebert himself released a statement on Friday saying that although his recovery is taking longer than expected, his doctors have given him an "enthusiastically optimistic" prognosis.

STUDIOS CHURNING OUT NEW HIGH-DEFINITION RELEASES

The major studios are gambling that the public will be making the switch to high-definition DVD players by Christmas time and are aggressively releasing new titles in the competing and incompatible HD DVD and Blu-ray formats. Home Media Retailing magazine, citing the industry newsletter "The DVD Release Report," reported that 140 high-definition movie titles are either already in stores or are due for release in the next two months, 83 in the HD DVD format and 57 in Blu-ray. The magazine noted that several other titles had been scheduled to be released in Blu-ray but were postponed to allow for further remastering "due to the high level of quality expected by early adopters."

AMAZON CLOSE TO LAUNCHING MOVIE DOWNLOAD SERVICE?

Long-circulating rumors that Amazon.com would soon launch a movie downloading service picked up momentum over the weekend as bloggers discovered what appeared to be screenshots of the planned Amazon video site. Alan Taylor, who said that he once worked for Amazon, said that he found the screenshots in an area of Amazon.com used by developers. One screen offers new users a free TV show or $1.99 off the first movie they download. The website TechWeb.com said that when it contacted Amazon about the screenshots, it declined comment. Taylor himself told TechWeb: "It could be an experiment. ... They may never decide to launch this."

Brian B.