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800-Pound Gorilla Takes a Seat on Box-Office Bus : Movies: Ape tale ‘Congo’ opens huge despite bad reviews, bumping ‘Casper’ to second place. ‘Bridges of Madison County’ takes third, shows promise of a long life.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

“Congo,” the adaptation of Michael Crichton’s gorilla novel from Paramount, surprised industry naysayers and kicked the early summer box office into overdrive with a chest-pounding first weekend estimate of $25.2 million.

The movie pawed its way past overwhelmingly negative reviews, apparently luring every available young male (12- to 25-year-olds) as well as strong inner-city attendance, for the best debut numbers since “Interview With the Vampire” last November. “Congo” appeared on 2,649 screens averaging better than $9,000 a print.

Even Paramount senior executive Barry London did not expect that strong a weekend, but says the film was helped in part by the Crichton name and marketing and promotion elements that included Internet ads, teaser trailers and Pepsi/Taco-Bell tie-ins.

As to how “Congo” will fare against the expected powerhouse opening of “Batman Forever” on Friday, London says, “Now it’s up to the movie.”

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As the summer gets hotter and audiences get into the film-going habit, the arrival of “Congo” doesn’t spell curtains for everyone else. The top six films held strongly, says John Krier of Exhibitor Relations, meaning the weekend could end up between $70 million to $72 million, an increase of $7 million to $9 million over the same period last year.

“And some of the biggest films, ‘Batman Forever,’ ‘Apollo 13' and ‘Pocahontas’ are still ahead of us,” Krier observes.

“Casper” dropped to second place, but it was a soft landing, with only a 21% weekend-to-weekend drop--for $10.6 million on 2,756 screens. And, reports Universal executive vice president Nikki Rocco, midweek business is up as more and more schools empty for summer vacation. The film has the kids pretty much to itself until Disney’s heavily hyped “Pocahontas” enters national release on June 23, giving “Casper” more than a ghost of a chance to reach $100 million based on its $54.6 million in the first three weeks.

In third, with the smallest decline, is “The Bridges of Madison County,” which only lost 13% of its first weekend business. With an estimated $9.1 million on 1,982 screens and almost $25 million in its first 10 days, industry distribution sources predict a long life-span for this “Bridge.”

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The hearty male trio of “Die Hard With a Vengeance,” “Braveheart” and “Crimson Tide” withstood “Congo’s” pilfering of available males and took slots four through six.

“Die Hard” grossed $6.3 million or so for a monthlong total of almost $72 million. “Braveheart” is holding moderately well with $5.4 million and $34 million in three weeks. “Crimson” was down to $4.8 million and has just turned the $70-million corner. But, like “Congo,” these three could be incinerated by “Batman Forever.”

Billy Crystal’s “Forget Paris” declined to $2.5 million, bringing its total to an OK $24.2 million. But “While You Were Sleeping” continues to be the most popular romantic comedy of the year with $2.2 million over the weekend and $65.2 million to date.

Rounding out the top 10 are “Johnny Mnemonic,” with about $1.45 million and a middling$15 million or so to date, and “Mad Love,” which is projecting $1.2 million for the weekend and $12.8 million so far.


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