‘Force’ on mega-roll at $37.1 mil

Once again the “force” was with Harrison Ford, as Columbia’s “Air Force One” climbed to $37.1 million at the weekend box office to take a commanding lead in the domestic marketplace.

And while the yarn of a U.S. president held hostage didn’t open with the gale force of “The Lost World” or “Men in Black,” its initial salvo was definitely blockbusterlike. Not only did its B.O. better the first weekend of any post-Independence Day holiday, pre-Labor Day by $12 million, the pic racked up per-theater averages of almost $13,000.

“Air Force One,” which debuted with 2,919 playdates, continues summer ’97’s pattern of mighty debuts. The impact of megaplexing finally appears to be reshaping playoff patterns with stronger openings, faster erosion and fewer number of weeks in theaters. What’s yet to be chronicled is whether top grossers are winding up with fewer number of play weeks — determined by multiplying the number of theaters by the weeks onscreen.

It does seem obvious that having access to more screens is allowing the top titles to maintain high averages. Per-theater numbers are actually improving as mega pics open on several screens and the combo of seats and available show times — often every hour — means not having to turn people away.

Weekend business expanded 7% from seven days earlier for a $111.5 million total. That also was up a whopping 37% from the comparable frame of 1996 when Warner Bros. debuted “A Time to Kill.” The year’s cume advanced to $3.65 billion, about 7% better than last year’s former record-setting pace.

‘Burger’ does tasty biz

The frame’s other wide release was Paramount’s “Good Burger,” a project spun from the company’s Nickelodeon cable outlet. It had a solid $7 million preem and $3,740 average, encouraging numbers for a movie aimed at kids. The problem facing “Burger” is that, after a paucity of so-called family movies in the first half of summer, the latter part of the season is overflowing with the likes of the current “George of the Jungle” and such juve fare as “Air Bud” and “Free Willy 3” in the wings.

Niche fare mostly steered clear of the high-flying thriller. However, Miramax continued to effectively expand “Shall We Dance?” and “Mrs. Brown,” and Orion Classics’ “Ulee’s Gold” is maintaining its dominance among specialized titles. The big surprise this season outside the mainstream is the number of foreign-language pics that are doing strong, consistent biz, including Sony Classics’ “When the Cat’s Away,” “Ponette” from Arrow, New Yorker’s “La Promesse,” Strand’s revival of “Contempt” and the part-English lingo “The Pillow Book” via CFP.

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