Just like the seemingly consistent California weather, this week’s box office looks a lot like last week’s box office. Again Warner Bros.’ “The Fugitive” is the clear viewing choice in America, and for the second straight week the place position goes to a well-primed genre film.

The rest of the field remains dominated by continuing runs of the season’s most popular films. New entries have either dropped like flies or will require a bit more nurturing before the good doctor can make his yea or nay prognosis.

“The Fugitive” led the weekend with a gross of $ 18,148,331 and averages of $ 7,600 — easily the best per-engagement figures in the land. It was also holding up well overall, slipping 19% for the period.

Not exactly on its heels was Universal’s debut of “Hard Target,” placing second. The violent actioner from the Jean-Claude Van Damme canon charged into the marketplace with $ 10,106,500. That represented very solid averages of $ 5, 125. A week earlier New Line’s “Jason Goes to Hell” held the same slot with a $ 7.5 million gross. It slid 71% in its sophomore turn and fell quickly into 11th position.

The industry consensus is that “The Fugitive” will retain top spot next weekend too. If the current viewing climate remains constant it will be good news for Columbia/Castle Rock’s “Needful Things.” If the winds shift, Warner Bros. will be chasing itself with Mel Gibson’s directing debut on “The Man Without a Face.”

The past weekend also saw New Line take a bad tumble on its launch of “Surf Ninjas,” an antic martial arts outing with not quite the anticipated family appeal it was meant to garner. “Ninjas” arrived with $ 2,026,278 and landed 13th on the charts. It registered very disappointing averages of $ 1,534. A whisker away at 14th was Woody Allen’s “Manhattan Murder Mystery” from TriStar. The comedy averaged $ 7,520 and, depending on your spin, the film has the sweet smell of relative success or was somewhat of a disappointment.

Delicate factors

Its ultimate commercial potency will depend on extremely delicate factors. TriStar has to maintain its current dates if it ever hopes to expand the base of loyal Allenites — a faction of the audience which has been slowly eroding.

“Murder Mystery” still looks like a better bet than Paramount’s “Searching for Bobby Fischer.” It remains a curiosity that the studio would decide to open a serious film amid the box office bonbons of August.

Even with exceptionally good reviews, “Bobby Fischer” is hampered by a number of deficits, including the absence of a name cast, material not based on a hit play or book, and subject matter which is hardly part of the current public debate. So, why go against the grain? Why indeed.

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