Alien pics offer auds some variety

Two very different approaches to the topic of extraterrestrial life accounted for nearly half the total weekend box office. Sony’s sci-fi comedy sophomore “Men in Black” dropped 41% to gross $30.1 million while WB’s higher-minded freshman “Contact” nabbed $20.6 million.

“Men in Black’s” strong second weekend — the sixth-highest ever — almost guarantees the film will go on to break the $200 million barrier. It could even surpass Universal’s “The Lost World: Jurassic Park,” which will top out at around $225 million.

While “Contact’s” bow was solid, it remains to be seen how the film fares in the long term.

On the plus side, the picture stands apart from the rest of the current pack in that it’s neither a sequel nor an action film. The summer’s only other experiment in mainstream counterprogramming, the romantic comedy “My Best Friends Wedding,” has enjoyed the smallest week-to-week drop-offs of the summer and is on track to cume $100 million.

“Contact” also received generally positive, if not unanimously glowing reviews.

But the question remains how large a theatrical audience there is for a 2-1/2-hour movie about life in outerspace, in which you never see an alien.

Warner Bros. execs decided early on to target the broadest possible audience for the film. “We had to walk a fine line to make certain that it wasn’t mistaken as another in a long line of sci-fi hardware projects,” said Chris Pula, WB marketing prexy. “But we never overtly promised a smart, thinking man’s movie. We knew Jodie Foster, Bob Zemeckis and a novel by a Pulitzer prize-winning author would deliver upscale pedigree beyond our wildest dreams.”

Besides, he added, “You’d be surprised how many people don’t want to think in the movies.”

Pula acknowledged that some of the first weekend’s audience members may have come expecting a more effects-driven sci-fi adventure. Still, response to exit polls was strong among both men and women of all ages, he said.

“Either we didn’t get as many (men) as you think or the emotional delivery works so well that they didn’t miss the pyrotechnics,” said Pula.

“MiB” and “Contact” led the weekend to a $102.6 million total for the top 60 films. That’s a drop of 7% from last year when “Independence Day,” “Phenomenon,” “Courage Under Fire” and “The Nutty Professor” pushed the tally to $110.3 million.

It was the third consecutive frame to fall short in a year-to-year comparison. It also was the sixth of the last seven, and the eighth out of the last 10 to underperform the 1996.

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