Aliens take over B.O.

'Men,' 'Contact' go 1-2

Three out of five Americans prefer their aliens quirky, computer-generated and visible, if the weekend box office is any indication. Sony’s sophomore “Men in Black” remained the top B.O. attraction, dropping an estimated 40% to $30.5 million, while Warner Bros.’ more cerebral “Contact” connected with $20.5 million in its debut.

The only other wide opener, the Bubble Factory and Universal’s kidpic “A Simple Wish,” managed an unmagical $2.6 million opening.

If the studio’s projections for “Men in Black” hold up, it will be the fifth-highest second-weekend gross ever, behind “Jurassic Park” ($38.4 million), “Twister” ($37.1 million), “Independence Day” ($35.2 million) and “The Lost World: Jurassic Park” ($34 million). The original “Batman” pulled in $30 million in its sophomore frame.

“In today’s world, down 40% is very good,” said Jeff Blake, president of Sony Pictures Releasing. “Contact,” director Robert Zemeckis’ first outing since his megahit “Forrest Gump,” scored the weekend’s highest wide release average with a robust $10,066 per encounter. The gross is especially good given the film’s two-and-half-hour running time, which limits most theaters to four shows per day.

The drama, which stars Jodie Foster as a radio astronomer who discovers a signal emanating from a distant galaxy, is predictably appealing to an older, upscale audience.

“It’s really the first thinking movie of the summer,” said Barry Reardon, WB distribution president. “The primary audience is over 25. We’re hoping it will break under 25, although it will probably never be big with teens.”

‘Contact’ to expand

Reardon said he had originally planned to open the film in 1,600-1,700 theaters, but beefed up the release to 1,923 sites based on strong response to sneak previews. He plans to expand the run to about 2,300 by Friday. Reardon, who believes the film has a shot at topping $100 million, expects “Contact” to hold well against the openings of Buena Vista’s kidpic “George of the Jungle” and the youth-oriented “Nothing to Lose.”

One possible cause for concern, however, is the film’s Saturday bump of just 19% over Friday. That’s surprisingly low for a film appealing primarily to older viewers. It could be an indication that the “Contact” got an initial boost from science fiction fans, who may have been expecting a more action-packed space adventure.

Overall business once again lagged behind last year. Total ticket sales for films grossing $500,000 or more came to about $101 million, down 14% from the previous weekend and off 5% from the equivalent frame in 1996.

The numbers are dimming hopes among distributors and exhibitors that the second half of the summer will pick up enough speed to make up ground lost in the early part of the season. Coming into the weekend, summer business was off about 9% from 1996.

“It’s not a good sign,” said one distribution topper of the weekend results. Individual percentage drops from the previous frame were unusually low, in part because business was slow last Friday, due to the July 4 holiday.

Paramount’s “Face/Off” enjoyed a 23% hold in its third weekend, grossing $12.3 million. In 2,851 operating rooms, the John Woo helmed actioner averaged $4,314 per session. Cume to-date is $71.7 million, which virtually guarantees the picture will coast to a $100 million-plus finish. This despite fierce competition for its core young male audience from “Men in Black.”

‘Wedding’ still strong

Also still leggy was Sony’s romantic comedy “My Best Friend’s Wedding,” which dropped just 22% to $8.4 million. With a cume of $83.6 million, the surprise hit appears on track to eventually overtake WB’s “Batman & Robin,” which also opened on June 20. The fourth “Batman” installment dropped 53% to $3.8 million this weekend, bringing its cume to $98.5 million.

BV’s “Hercules” dropped to fifth place, off 32% to $8.2 million. Disney’s 35th animated feature has cumed $66.4 million after three weeks in wide release.

Twentieth Century Fox’s sophomore “Out to Sea” dropped 30% to $4.1 million on 1,738 shuffle board courts for a so-so $2,359 average. Cume after 12 days is $10.6 million.

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