‘Force’ feeds Sony’s streak

$37 mil bow sets late-summer record

Beacon Communications’ “Air Force One,” starring President Harrison Ford as a one-man anti-terrorism unit, soared to a commanding $37.1 million and lifted the weekend box office to its highest non-holiday level of the year.

The weekend’s only other wide opener, Paramount and Nickelodeon’s low-budget pre-teen comedy “Good Burger,” cooked up a tasty $7.3 million to land in fifth place.

“Air Force One’s” high-flying debut was the strongest ever for an R-rated picture (see chart) as well as the best ever post-July 4 summer opening, easily outstripping the $27.5 million July 15, 1994, bow of Fox’s “True Lies.”

It was also a record weekend for Ford, besting the $23.8 million run up by “The Fugitive” during the Aug. 6, 1993, frame. That picture went on to gross $183.2 million domestically and another $173.5 million overseas.

Jeff Blake, president of domestic distributor Sony Pictures Releasing, was confident Sunday that “AFO” would eventually outgross “The Fugitive,” possibly passing the $200 million mark in North America.

“We’ve got exit polls that are tremendous, with over 80% definite recommends in all four demographic quadrants,” Blake said. “It’s pleasing both the action crowd and women.”

However, for “AFO” to hit $200 million, it would have to gross 5.4 times its initial three-day take. Multiples of more than five have been extremely rare among wide releases in recent months, even for blockbusters.

The Wolfgang Petersen-helmed actioner was co-financed by Beacon and Sony, which will share in domestic revenues, as well as Buena Vista Intl., which acquired foreign distribution rights.

In explaining the film’s broad appeal, Beacon chairman Armyan Bernstein said that while the film was not afraid to be patriotic, “It’s not about America or politics. It’s about a man doing the right thing, standing up for his family.”

B.O. on non-holiday high

Total ticket sales for the weekend appeared likely to top $108 million, which would make it the best three-day, non-holiday weekend of the year. The total for $500,000-plus grossers was estimated at $105.5 million, a whopping 26% above the comparable 1996 frame.

It now appears likely that, despite this summer’s slower start, the seasonal box office will surpass last summer’s total by Labor Day. Much of that late-season power has come from films distributed by Sony, which will likely set a new record for summer ticket sales. The current record is $486 million, set by Buena Vista last year.

Blake predicted that Sony would gross more than $500 million from its three biggest films alone: “My Best Friend’s Wedding,” “Men in Black” and “Air Force One.”

“AFO” apparently took a bite out of many of the weekend’s holdovers, which generally saw steeper declines this weekend than last.

Not surprisingly, Buena Vista’s kidpic “George of the Jungle” was least affected, losing just 20% of its altitude and landing in second place with a $13.2 million sophomore frame.

‘Contact,’ ‘Condor’ casualties

Hit hard was WB’s “Contact,” whose older-skewing audience was apparently drawn to “AFO.” The Jodie Foster starrer was off 41% to $9.5 million, as opposed to last week’s 22% drop.

But it was Miramax’s “Operation Condor” which saw the sharpest drop, diving 66% to $1.6 million in its second weekend. “Condor” tied for 10th place with 20th Century Fox’s “Out to Sea” which sailed in 1,441 vessels for a soggy $805 average. Cume after 26 days is $23.4 million.

“Good Burger” is the second Nickelodeon-Paramount feature collaboration, following last summer’s “Harriet the Spy.” “Harriet” opened to $6.6 million — also in fifth — and eventually totaled $26.6 million.

Exclusive openers

In exclusive openers, Fox Searchlight’s “Star Maps” found $57,500 in five L.A. and New York locations, for a sturdy $11,500 average. Since its Wednesday debut, the Miguel Arteta drama has cumed about $81,000.

Lakeshore and Trimark’s “Box of Moonlight” opened to $13,500 in its single run at Sony’s Lincoln Square in New York. The picture expands to L.A. on Friday.

Among specialized holdovers, Miramax’s “Mrs. Brown” picked up $321,000 after expanding from six screens to 32. That’s an average of $10,031; cume is $455,000. The minimajor’s “Shall We Dance” grossed $436,000 in 62 dance halls, for a $7,032 average. Cume after 17 days of platform release is $1.1 million.

Paramount’s “Kiss Me, Guido” grabbed $94,000 smackers in six situations in New York and L.A. for a sexy $15,666 average. Cume after 10 days is $274,000.

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