‘Outbreak’ stays on top of B.O. sesh

Warner Bros.’ continued media support of “Outbreak” paid off, as the contagious thriller handily led the week’s B.O. with a $13.7 million gross. Maintaining a high profile kept the film on track with studio projections that had the big-budget pic taking 15%-20% hits in its initial weeks.

The frame’s trio of wide-release freshmen also spent substantial bucks to gain a public profile. Best of the bunch was Gramercy’s “Candyman: Farewell to the Flesh,” which took second place with a $7.35 million opening and a $4,590 average. It was a solid debut and especially strong in light of recent tepid performances by horror films.

Fourth-and fifth-place finishers, Fox’s “Bye Bye, Love” ($5.8 million) and Paramount’s “Losing Isaiah” ($3.3 million), respectively, also appeared to fall victim to familiarity. “Bye Bye” looked a lot like a highbrow sitcom and “Isaiah” had “pedigree telefilm” invisibly stamped across its campaign.

Marketplace erosion continues in both obvious and less apparent ways. The three tyros rang up $13 million, a 27% decline from last year.

So, what’s taking up the slack? In the words of exhibition: distinctive pictures. What increasingly fuels the marketplace are high-end and low-end pictures.

The prospect of something different has been an asset for a number of the weekend frosh. Savoy’s “Circle of Friends” surprised everyone with $200,000 from four screens – a small film with just enough of an Irish twist to draw in crowds. In its U.S. debut, Belgium’s Oscar nominee “Farinelli” was something appealingly exotic and rang up $143,000 in limited release. India’s controversial “Bandit Queen” preemed on one in Toronto to $16,000, more proof of specialized appeal. On the flip side is Columbia/Castle Rock’s “For Better or Worse,” a romantic comedy starring and directed by Jason Alexander. It tested in Minneapolis and Portland, Ore., and, despite the TV star’s promo presence, limped along with about $37,700 from 24 play-dates.

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