‘Cell’ swell, Kings swing

Lopez thriller tops at $17 mil; 'Comedy' finds rich niche

Killers, comics and codgers ruled the weekend box office, as New Line’s “The Cell” bowed at No. 1 with a studio-estimated $17.2 million.

Jennifer Lopez dreamscape aggressively targeted sub-25s at a time of year when niche can make you rich.

“We picked this date at the beginning of the year,” said David Tuckerman, distrib prexy at New Line, which has fared quite well during the usually sleepy month of August. Indeed, “The Cell” joins New Line’s roster of recent late-summer winners such as “Mortal Kombat” and “Blade.” It’s the top career bow for star Lopez, and a heady start for feature newbie Tarsem, known for musicvid work.

Finishing a surprising second was MTV Films’ debuter “The Original Kings of Comedy” (distributed by Paramount), whose $11.7 million bow is the best ever for a concert film or docu.

Screening in just 847 locations following a low-profile five-week test run in select markets, “Kings” collected a royal $13,813 per site.

“It’s about 30% better than we expected,” said Wayne Lewellen, distrib chief at Par. “It has extremely positive word of mouth.”

Auds, especially the expected black core, flocked to the pic just as they did to the comedy tour featuring D.L. Hughley, Steve Harvey, Bernie Mac and Cedric the Entertainer. For helmer Spike Lee, one of the quickest shoots of his career yielded his biggest opening weekend.

Warner Bros.’ “Space Cowboys” also posted surprisingly strong numbers in its third weekend. With an estimated $9.9 million, down just 24% from last weekend, pic has now grossed $54.2 million. WB distrib chief Dan Fellman said it’s ahead of the pace of “Unforgiven” and “In the Line of Fire,” two $100 million-plus grossers from the past decade for “Space” helmer-star Clint Eastwood.

For the fourth straight frame, overall receipts fell short of the comparable 1999 period. B.O. tracker ACNielsen EDI estimated total business at $103 million, down 3% from last year. If the estimate holds, summer will be off 4.6% from the 1999 pace, with year-to-date grosses still clinging to a 1.6% lead.

“The heavy bleeding seems to have stopped,” noted Tom Borys, prexy of ACNielsen EDI. “We’re getting more in synch with last year.”

Only pic besides “The Cell” to debut with 2,000-plus playdates was Sony’s old-school “Godzilla 2000.” Rubber-suit monster romp opened to $4.6 million — not enough to make the top 10, but already signaling a profit. Pic from Japan’s Toho cost Sony just $1 million for rights in North America and several other territories.

‘Hollow’ dematerializing

On the flip side for Sony, “Hollow Man” became “Challah Man” — ample dough, but far from the main course. Two-time defending B.O. champ fell 53%, skidding into seventh place with $6.1 million. Special-effects thriller is up to $61.7 million and should tack on another $20 million-$25 million before exiting theaters.

MGM’s “Autumn in New York” also took a fall — 48% and into eighth place from No. 4 in last week’s debut. Lakeshore-produced tearjerker has collected $21.2 million to date.

Other holdovers posted above-average numbers. Sophomore hold on Warners’ “The Replacements” nearly matched that of “Space Cowboys.” After a so-so launch, Keanu Reeves football comedy slipped only 32% to secure fourth place and bring its tally to $23.7 million in 10 days.

Universal’s summer-saver “Nutty Professor II: The Klumps” officially cleared $100 million. Pic had a three-day take of $6.4 million. Dip of 37% is its best in three frames since its bow, and Eddie Murphy morpher has brought in $104.4 million.

Disney’s “Coyote Ugly” also stabilized after a sophomore free-fall. Babes-and-booze pic added $5 million, down 37%, to boost its total to $43.8 million.

Toon of the century mark

Though it long ago left the top 10, “Chicken Run” made history, becoming DreamWorks’ top-grossing animated pic with $101.9 million and still pecking.

On the limited-release circuit, Fine Line’s “Saving Grace” delivered $1.3 million in its first major expansion. Marijuana comedy reached 254 runs from last week’s 35, averaging $4,034. Though profitability is a ways off, cume is just shy of $2 million after 17 days.

Artisan’s John Waters-helmed “Cecil B. Demented” also widened a bit, playing on 30 screens. Pic grossed an estimated $175,000 for a 10-day tally of $365,000.

Two more established indies, Shooting Gallery’s “Croupier” and Par Classics’ “Sunshine,” extended durable runs. “Croupier” tacked on $200,000 and has cumed $4.6 million, while a $156,000 frame for “Sunshine” brought it to $5.3 million overall.

On the truly bigscreen, “Michael Jordan: To the Max,” cleared $10 million by the end of last week. Now in its fourth month of release, large-format docu from Giant Screen Sports will add new markets in coming weeks and go overseas in the fall. Its weekend figures were unavailable.

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