‘George’ helps B.O. to $104 mil

Solid holds by Sony’s “Men in Black,” Warner Bros.’ “Contact” and Paramount’s “Face/Off,” plus the surprisingly strong $16.5 million debut of Buena Vista’s “George of the Jungle,” led the overall weekend box office to a hefty $104 million total.

Ticket sales were up 19% from the equivalent frame last year, when “The Frighteners,” “Fled,” “Multiplicity” and “Kazaam” all opened to less than $6 million and the 3-week-old “Independence Day” topped the chart at $21.3 million.

Business was up a little more than 1% from the previous weekend.

“George of the Jungle” caught most B.O.-watchers off guard, as its pre-release tracking indicated little interest in the film.

But even given the picture’s sturdy $3.3 million Wednesday opening, “George” performed well coming in on the high end of projections for the three-day weekend.

Historical precedents of family-oriented summer Wednesday openers seemed to indicate a three-day gross of four to five times the Wednesday figure, or $13.2 million to $16.5 million.

“Every day it’s been doing a little better than it’s supposed to,” said Chuck Viane, Buena Vista senior VP and general sales manager.

The picture, based on the short-lived ’60s animated cartoon series with the indelible theme song, surprised even Disney execs by attracting viewers of all ages, according to Viane.

“The strangest part is that every audience was different, every night was different,” Viane said. “The Wednesday and Thursday screenings, and even the early Friday screenings started out pure family. You’d see one parent with three or four kids — which meant the neighborhood kids.

“But by Saturday night you started to see teenage couples. And Sunday there were what I called ‘unaccompanied adults,’ couples in their 30s or 40s without kids.”

The picture, whose trailers highlight its broad sight gags, may have appealed to the same teen audiences who made “Dumb and Dumber” a huge hit. However, Viane said the film so far did not appear to be attracting groups of teenage girls and boys.

Obviously, the question now is how “George” will perform in the long-term.

While it will face little direct competition this weekend from Sony’s “Air Force One,” Paramount Nickelodeon’s “Good Burger” could cut into teen and pre-teen audiences.

“As a parent, if the choice is ‘Good Burger’ or us, I’d say we’re the parents’ choice,” Viane said.

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