'Hercules' in 2nd; 'Wedding' festive

Paramount’s John Woo-helmed shoot-’em-up “Face/Off” blasted its way to a projected $22.7 million opening, edging out Buena Vista’s animated “Hercules,” which picked up an estimated $21.5 million in its first weekend in wide release.

Meanwhile, Warner Bros.’ sophomore “Batman & Robin” flew into a tailspin, plummeting 64% to $15.4 million and landing in third place.

Sony’s “My Best Friend’s Wedding,” on the other hand, displayed powerful legs. The Julia Roberts romantic comedy slipped just 29% to $15.3 million, according to studio projections.

Fine Line’s limited opener “Head Above Water” managed just $11,000 in 10 locations for a soggy $1,100 average, according to Daily Variety’s estimate.

After a strong showing last weekend, the overall box office once again fell substantially below 1996 levels. Ticket sales for films grossing a half million dollars or more totaled an estimated $91 million. That’s a drop of 9% from this time last year, when “The Nutty Professor” and “Striptease” debuted against sophomores “Eraser” and “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.”

The pay-per-view broadcast of the Mike Tyson-Evander Holyfield bout may have taken a bite out of Saturday’s theatrical attendance.

Business has been down, on a year-to-year basis, for four of the last five weekends.

“Face/Off,” the Paramount-Disney co-production starring John Travolta and Nicolas Cage, surprised some observers by taking the weekend title. Pre-opening tracking remained tepid well into last week, but an aggressive ad campaign and overwhelmingly favorable reviews apparently helped get the picture open.

Genderwise, the film’s audience broke down 52%-48% in favor of males, a surprisingly even split for an actioner. Paramount distribution president Wayne Lewellen credited the film’s star power and critical praise for the high turnout among women. Lewellen also said he believed the film’s Saturday’s business may have been off by as much as 15% due to the heavyweight bout.

Leg up for ‘Face/Off’

Producer David Permut said he is counting on strong word of mouth to keep “Face/Off” aloft, despite what he acknowledges will be formidable competition from Sony’s “Men in Black,” which opens Tuesday night.

“In addition to terrific action, ‘Face/Off’ is a film that doesn’t take itself too seriously. It winks at the audience,” Permut said. “There’s also a strong emotional connection to the characters.”

While “Hercules” appeared to have slightly out-muscled last summer’s “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” which bowed to $21.2 million, the debut was considerably weaker than those of past Disney toons such as “The Lion King” ($40.1 million), “Pocahontas” ($29.9 million) and “Toy Story” ($29.1 million). “Hunchback” limped to $100.1 million after a lengthy run.

Acknowledging that it has become commonplace for films to finish with cumes equivalent to three times their opening weekend grosses, Buena Vista senior VP and general sales manager Chuck Viane said, “This isn’t one of those. This is a slam dunk to $100 million.”

Toon trouble

Although still hugely popular, Disney animated films have experienced an overall decline at the box office since the high-water mark of $312.9 million for “The Lion King” in 1994.

Some observers believe the decrease may be attributable to demographics. As children of the “baby boomlet” of the late ’80s begin to mature, there may be less of an audience for G-rated fare, they say. That could be bad news for the handful of studios, including Fox and DreamWorks, which plan to release big-budget cartoon features in the next year.

The 29% drop for “My Best Friend’s Wedding” bucks the trend this summer of steep second weekend declines. Among wide releases, the smallest sophomore drops so far this season have belonged to “Addicted to Love” (33%) and “Con Air” (35%).

Universal’s 3-month-old “Liar Liar” reappeared in the top 10 with $943,000 after going into discount houses. With a cume of $172.6 million, the comedy is the highest-grossing film for producer Brian Grazer’s Imagine Entertainment. Imagine’s 1995 drama “Apollo 13” topped off at $172 million.

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