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.''