‘George’ can’t crack ‘Black’

Disney pic swings in at No. 2

Sony’s “Men in Black” zapped an estimated $19 million over the weekend, becoming the first film of the summer to rule the fickle box office universe for three consecutive frames.

Swinging into the marketplace in second place, Buena Vista’s live-action kidpic “George of the Jungle” broke through with $16.3 million, while Warner Bros.’ sophomore “Contact” slipped to No. 3, down 22% to a leggy $16.1 million.

BV’s action comedy “Nothing to Lose” opened in fourth with a solid $11.6 million, but the weekend’s other wide debut, Miramax’s Jackie Chan starrer “Operation Condor,” laid an egg at $4.7 million.

Overall theatrical business was brisk, with ticket sales for films grossing more than $500,000 totaling an estimated $97.1 million. That’s a 17% improvement over the comparable 1996 period, making this the first weekend in nearly a month to post a gain over last year. With a number of promising openings on tap over the next few weeks — including Sony’s “Air Force One,” WB’s “Conspiracy Theory” and New Line’s “Spawn” — distributors are generally optimistic that the remainder of the summer will compare favorably to 1996.

“MiB’s” hefty weekend total brought the sci-fi comedy’s cume to $172.1 million, putting it within a few days of overtaking Universal’s “Liar Liar,” currently the year’s second-highest grossing release with $176.3 million. In fact, the Will Smith-Tommy Lee Jones starrer now appears likely to become the biggest film of the year, eventually topping Universal’s “The Lost World: Jurassic Park,” which has cumed about $222 million.

” ‘Men in Black’ is the only movie out there that’s appealing to everybody,” said Jeff Blake, president of Sony Pictures Releasing. “It’s also the only picture this summer to benefit from significant repeat business.”

Despite being No. 2, “George of the Jungle’s” opening was impressive, particularly for a live-action kidpic, a genre which has, with few exceptions, suffered in recent years. Also promising was the film’s 33% bump Saturday over Friday. The debut far exceeded pre-opening market research, which indicated a $6 million-$7 million bow, once again demonstrating the difficulty of tracking children’s fare.

“George’s” entrance appeared to weaken ticket sales for BV’s own “Hercules,” which fell 42% to $4.8 million after losing nearly 400 screens. At $76.3 million to date, “Herc” will have some heavy lifting to do to reach $100 million.

On a brighter note, Disney execs were pleased with the initial showing of the Martin Lawrence-Tim Robbins starrer “Nothing to Lose.”

‘Lose’ gaining suburbs

“It’s playing extremely well in the suburbs,” said Phil Barlow, president of distribution. “A lot of people predicted it would only play in urban areas.” For instance, Barlow noted that at AMC’s Ontario Mills megaplex in suburban Riverside County, the picture racked up $17,500 on Friday and $21,100 Saturday. Similarly, at Edwards’ Irvine Spectrum in Orange County, “Lose” won $17,100 and $18,900, on Friday and Saturday, respectively.

Disney’s decision to open “Nothing to Lose” against its subsidiary’s “Operation Condor” was hardly synergistic, however. Both films were targeted at young males and blacks, and “Condor” came up the loser. The English-dubbed Hong Kong actioner dropped 3% Saturday from Friday, an indication of an extremely short life-expectancy.

Chan’s films, which are distributed in the U.S. alternately by Miramax’s Dimension division and New Line Cinema, have seen diminishing returns domestically over the past few years. In February 1996, New Line released Chan’s “Rumble in the Bronx,” which opened to $9.6 million, and went on to total $32.4 million.

Last summer’s Chan starrer, “Supercop,” bowed to $5.3 million, eventually cuming $16.3 million for Miramax. In January, the New Line release “Jackie Chan’s First Strike” opened to $5.8 million, finishing with $14.5 million.

Among specialized releases, Paramount’s “Kiss Me, Guido” embraced a studio-estimated $110,000 in five theaters for a $22,000 average. The low-budget film, about a macho guy who finds himself sharing an apartment with a gay roommate, opened in two New York City locations plus one site each in New York’s Westchester County, West Hollywood and San Francisco. The publicity-driven platform release is unusual for Paramount, which acquired director Tony Vitale’s first effort from Ira Deutchman’s Redeemable Features. Over the past six months Paramount has actively been trying to staff a classics division to handle this type of specialized fare.

Miramax’s costume drama “Mrs. Brown” took in $76,000 in six theaters in New York and L.A., giving it a $12,680 average.

The mini-major’s “Shall We Dance?” kicked up a lively $370,000 after expanding to 36 dance halls to average $10,300 per number. Cume after 10 days is $514,000.

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