‘G.I. Jane’ in close shave

'Money' also vies for 1st

Leading a squadron of late summer newcomers, Buena Vista’s military drama “G.I. Jane” and New Line’s broad comedy “Money Talks” squared off in a bitterly contested battle for the weekend box office crown. Both companies predicted Sunday that their respective openers would finish the weekend with $11.1 million, setting off yet another now-familiar round of sniping among distribution honchos.

With a whopping six films bowing on at least 500 screens, ticket sales for the penultimate summer weekend came to an estimated $78.8 million for pictures grossing more than $500,000. That’s 16% ahead of the equivalent frame last year, when four new pictures entered the market.

Miramax’s roach-infested horror pic “Mimic” fell short of expectations, scurrying into fourth place with $7.6 million, while Universal’s family pic “Leave It to Beaver” found few takers at $3.4 million.

The weekend’s two other wide releases failed to score in the top 10: Rysher and Paramount’s infertility comedy “A Smile Like Yours” gave birth to $1.2 million in 582 clinics for an unfruitful $2,062 average, and Sony’s video-bound “Masterminds” schemed for $1 million in 1,186 locations, or a dim $864 per site.

‘Monty’ continues strong

In the specialized arena, Fox Searchlight provided a bright spot as “The Full Monty” continued to seduce upscale viewers. The British comedy grossed $250,000 after expanding its run from six to 10 theaters in New York, L.A. and San Francisco.

The strong second-weekend numbers (grosses were up over last weekend in some holdover engagements) and the prodigious $25,000 per screen average indicate “Monty” has a good shot at becoming the biggest 1997 arthouse release to date. That distinction currently belongs to Miramax’s “Chasing Amy” with its $11.6 million cume.

That means “Monty” could also become the highest grosser in Searchlight’s two-year history, overtaking the $10.4 million gross of the specialized arm’s first release, “The Brothers McMullen” in August 1995.

In opening to more than $10 million each, “G.I. Jane” and “Money Talks” represented victories for their respective studios’ marketing and distribution strategies: Only a week ago, market research showed few audience members voicing strong interest in either film.

Last month, Buena Vista decided to delay the release of “Jane” by a week and to offer not one, but two sneak previews of the Ridley Scott-helmed picture. The studio believed positive word of mouth generated by the screenings would overcome moviegoers’ initial resistance to the film, which may have been fueled in part by the declining popularity of star Demi Moore.

“We knew from the research that people loved the movie,” said Phil Barlow, BV president of distribution. “All we had to do was get them in.”

New Line’s decision to open “Money” on Friday rather than Wednesday, as originally planned, also seemed to pay off. Most box-office watchers expected “Mimic” to take second place for the weekend.

Dueling studios

But while the two solid openings should have been cause for celebration at Buena Vista and New Line, the successes were clouded Sunday by bickering to members of the press over who was entitled to wear the weekend box office crown.

Both studios estimated a weekend total of $11.1 million, but the unanimous opinion of disinterested distribution chiefs was that “Jane” would outstrip “Money” by anywhere from $400,000 to $1 million. The discrepancy hinged mainly on differing predictions for “Money’s” Sunday gross. New Line’s weekend estimate was based on an extremely small drop of 3% from Saturday’s total, according to Al Shapiro, New Line distribution president.

“Black films do tremendous business on Sunday,” noted Shapiro. “In some theaters, they double Saturday’s grosses.”

Mitch Goldman, New Line president of marketing and distribution, predicted “Money” would outgross “Jane” by as much as $600,000 on the final weekend day.

That didn’t sit well with BV’s Barlow. “This is the worst example yet — in a long series of examples — of misstating gross,” Barlow told Daily Variety.

Barlow went as far as to say that if New Line reported a final weekend gross Monday which conformed to its Sunday estimates, that would be a lie. “If they choose to report that they did $600,000 more than us, then they will report it,” he fumed. “But it won’t be that way in fact.”

Shapiro responded: “What they’re saying is so absurd. They’re saying I’m lying about something that hasn’t happened yet.”

Trouble for holdovers

Top holdovers apparently suffered from the influx of new product, with Paramount’s “Event Horizon” and Miramax’s “Cop Land” seeing the steepest declines, down 54% and 47%, respectively.

The smallest drop among top 10 holdovers was enjoyed by “Men in Black,” off 29% from the weekend before. The sci-fi comedy, which became the highest-grossing film of the year Wednesday, has cumed $230.6 million. That compares to about $227 million for previous year-to-date leader, Universal’s “The Lost World: Jurassic Park.”

“Men in Black” is almost certain to become the highest-grossing film in Columbia and TriStar history, surpassing Columbia’s 1984 “Ghostbusters,” which finished at $238.6 million.

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