WB pic, vet in close race

In a race that many observers saw as simply too close to call Sunday, Warner Bros. newcomer “Conspiracy Theory” appeared likely to just edge out Sony’s three-week-old blockbuster “Air Force One” for the weekend championship.

WB optimistically estimated its Mel Gibson-Julia Roberts thriller at $19.4 million for the frame, while Sony offered a more conservative $18.2 million prediction for its airborne Harrison Ford actioner.

New Line’s sophomore “Spawn” plummeted 54% to $9.1 million, landing in the No. 3 spot.

In other wide debuts, the Gramercy-distributed “Def Jam’s How to Be a Player” scored $4.1 million on 751 dates for a respectable $5,459 per-screen average. The sex comedy, starring MTV personality Bill Bellamy, has totaled $5.6 million since its Wednesday opening.

“Free Willy 3,” on the other hand, surfaced with just $1 million in 1,258 harbors, or a near-extinct $795 per site. The third killer-whale saga fared far worse than its predecessors, which each opened to over $7 million.

In limited release, October Films’ “Career Girls” earned $95,100 in eight offices in New York and L.A. That gave Mike Leigh’s follow-up to his Oscar-nominated “Secrets & Lies” a promising $11,888 per-screen average.

Weekend ticket sales for all films grossing over $500,000 were estimated at $88 million, up 19% from the equivalent frame last year and down 15% from the previous weekend.

While several disinterested observers predicted “Conspiracy Theory” would end the weekend tied with or just ahead of “Air Force One,” Warner Bros. distribution president Barry Reardon estimated “Conspiracy” could actually beat “AFO” by more than $2 million.

“It’s a Saturday-Sunday movie,” said Reardon, who expected the picture to do only slightly less business Sunday than it did Friday.

But given “Conspiracy’s” double-barreled star-power, even at $19.4 million, the opening was less than spectacular. Earlier this summer, Sony’s “My Best Friend’s Wedding,” featuring Roberts sans male megastar, bowed to $21.7 million.

“Conspiracy’s” unfavorable reviews probably were partly to blame, but audiences may also have been put off by the film’s subject matter, as well as Gibson’s playing against type as a ranting, seemingly paranoid cabbie.

With the help of strong holds from “AFO” and “Men in Black,” Sony brought its total summer grosses to a record-breaking $511 million. (Daily Variety considers the summer movie season to begin on the weekend before the Memorial Day frame, which this year fell on May 16.) It’s the first time a studio has ever grossed over a half-billion during summer. The previous summer record was $479.7 million, set by Buena Vista last year.

Sony, which has already racked up more than $900 million domestically in 1997, appears on track to top $1 billion by Labor Day. Buena Vista, the only other company ever to reach $1 billion in a year, did so on Nov. 23, 1996.

Sony distribution chief Jeff Blake believes the studio now has a good shot at breaking BV’s 1996 record total of $1.2 billion. Blake points out that Sony has eight more films set to release after Labor Day, including such high-profile titles as “Starship Troopers,” “Seven Years in Tibet” and “Old Friends.”

Meanwhile, BV execs said they were pleased with the results of the first of two sneak previews for “G.I. Jane.” The 900-plus Saturday night shows, which mainly played with BV’s own “Nothing to Lose,” were at 75%-80% capacity, according to distribution president Phil Barlow.

“Responses in the top two boxes — excellent and very good — ranged between the mid-70s and the low 80s,” said Barlow, who noted that audiences were split almost evenly between men and women. BV will sneak the film again on Aug. 16.

Among specialized holdovers, Miramax’s “Mrs. Brown” picked up a royal $602,000 in 95 palaces for a $6,336 average. Cume after 24 days is $1.8 million. The minimajor’s “Shall We Dance” counted off $530,000 on 105 dance floors, or $5,048 per location, bringing its cume to $2.8 million.

Paramount’s “Kiss Me, Guido” bussed $174,000 in 33 apartments for a $5,272 average. Cume after 3-1/2 weeks is $696,000.

Miramax’s “Love Serenade” sang for $122,000 after expanding from five to 31 screens. Average: $3,935; cume: $202,000.

New Line’s reissue of “Love Jones” grossed approximately $80,000 in 221 bedrooms, for a flaccid $362 per screen, according to Daily Variety estimates. New Line did not report on the picture, which is playing predominantly in discount houses.

Trimark’s “Box of Moonlight” took in 68,000 in 16 theaters, or $4,250 per screen, after adding six markets to its New York-L.A. exclusives. Cume is $128,000.

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