B.O. bursts with ‘One,’ ‘Conspiracy

The one-two punch of Warner Bros.’ “Conspiracy Theory” and Sony’s “Air Force One” led the weekend’s top 60 films to a $94.1 million total.

That’s a 21.1% improvement over a year ago, when Buena Vista’s opener “Jack” and Warner Bros.’ sophomore “A Time to Kill” pushed the frame to a $77.7 million finish.

It was the fourth consecutive weekend to outperform 1996 on a year-to-year basis. However, business was down 12% from last weekend’s all-time August high of $107.5 million.

Rival distributors remained skeptical Monday about Warner Bros.’ reported $19.3 million opening for “Conspiracy,” but there was little doubt that the Richard Donner-helmed thriller had won the tight weekend race against “AF1.”

Sony had considerably less riding on the outcome, however, since its 3-week-old “Air Force One” has already established itself as the late-summer blockbuster. With $110.6 million already in the bank and dropoffs of 31% in each of its two holdover weekends, “AF1” appears on course to gross about $175 million when all is said and done.

Given “Conspiracy’s” mixed critical reception and its unpromising pre-opening tracking, some had expected the film to fare considerably worse. Still, to open to less than $20 million despite the presence of two of Hollywood’s biggest stars can only be seen as a disappointment, especially in the current box office environment of big openings and fast dropoffs.

Nine films this summer have opened to more than $20 million, and three of the them (“Contact,” “Con Air” and “Hercules”) are far from shoo-ins to reach $100 million.

“Conspiracy” has only a few weeks of summer left, and will likely face competition from Miramax’s “Cop Land,” which bows Friday, as well as continued turbulence from “AF1.” However, Warner Bros. has enjoyed success in the past with late-summer openers, including last year’s “A Time to Kill” and “Tin Cup.”

Meanwhile, the Gramercy-distributed “Def Jam’s How to Be a Player” opened to a sturdy $4.2 million in 751 situations to land in eighth for the weekend. The picture has racked up $5.7 million since its Wednesday debut.

WB’s “Free Willy 3: The Rescue” sank to 15th with a waterlogged $992,000 in 1,258 lagoons.

In general, holdovers fared well over the weekend. While New Line’s “Spawn” took a tumble, dropping 55% from its second-place opening last weekend, strong holds were enjoyed by “George of the Jungle” (down 29%), “Men in Black” (29%), “Contact” (28%), “Air Bud” (26%) and “My Best Friend’s Wedding” (29%).

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