Missy Schwartz and Joshua Rich
November 05, 2004 AT 05:00 AM EST

I’m so?giddy!” exclaims erstwhile vampire slayer Sarah Michelle Gellar. ”I’m not normally at a loss for words, so this is new for me.”

Also unprecedented is Gellar’s solo perch at the top of the box office: Columbia’s The Grudge opened at No. 1 with a frightening $39.1 million last weekend, making it the biggest debut for a female-fronted movie since Angelina Jolie’s Tomb Raider earned $47.7 million way back in June 2001.

So does this mean the former TV princess has become a certifiable movie queen? ”Tricky question,” says Jeff Robinov, Warner Bros. president of production. ”I’m sure people will look at her in a broader light and give her the opportunities to get the types of roles that can make her into a movie star.” But another rival-studio chief is convinced: ”You can’t open a movie up to $40 million and not be considered a movie star. And if she does one more movie that opens anywhere close to this one, then she’s a bankable movie star.”

Given that this is Gellar’s first hit not costarring a talking dog or a homicidal fisherman, she certainly deserves props — and the likely bump to a $2 million-plus salary (she made $600,000 on The Grudge). ”She has a huge fan base,” says Sony Pictures Entertainment’s Geoffrey Ammer, who flooded the market with cool, scare-your-pants-off Grudge ads aimed straight at Gellar’s 13- to 24-year-old core of devotees. ”The fan base comes from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and The Grudge [has] the same audience.”

That, in fact, may be just the problem: So many TV stars have crashed and burned trying to expand to a big-screen audience from their small-screen base. ”If you’d asked me a week ago, I’d say that the struggle was still there,” says Grudge casting director Kelly Wagner. ”But she conquered the first hurdle. Now let’s move out of the horror genre — let’s show some dramatic chops.”

It’s a challenge Gellar will shortly meet, working with director Richard Kelly (Donnie Darko) in the upcoming Southland Tales, a character-driven indie in which she’ll play a drug-using porn star. In other words, just about the furthest thing from a ponytailed ghost buster. ”Sarah is a very smart girl and she has a wicked sense of humor,” Kelly says. ”I see a lot of untapped potential.” Adds Wagner: ”It’s the perfect next step. She has the depth and the talent to do something a little darker — and I don’t mean spooky.”

Still, some caution against calling Gellar the next Julia or Reese just yet. ”She’s extremely limited,” says one Hollywood agent. ”Maybe she’ll have a moment coming out of this, but do I think people buy a ticket because she’s in the movie? No.” The Grudge, it could be argued, struck gold because audiences love being scared around Halloween. And Gellar’s past hits — Scooby-Doo, I Know What You Did Last Summer, and Cruel Intentions — were ensemble pieces. When she has starred alone in non-horror flicks — Harvard Man, Simply Irresistible — audiences have resisted. ”Maybe,” the agent says, ”she can be the new Jamie Lee Curtis.”

You May Like