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‘Men in Black’ Is Wearing Long Green

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Will Smith is quickly becoming the July Fourth pinup boy. This summer’s “Men in Black” blasted open the holiday period with an $18.8-million box office in 28 hours--from Tuesday night sneaks to a full bow on 5,400 screens nationwide Wednesday.

That’s about $3 million shy of the Wednesday opening of last summer’s blockbuster, “Independence Day"--the other July 4 holiday movie starring Smith--that stands as the highest-grossing holiday opener of all time.

To be exact: 20th Century Fox’s “ID4" opened to $17 million on Wednesday, July 3, 1996--one day before the holiday; “Men in Black” opened to $14 million on Wednesday, July 2--two days before the official holiday, according to Jeff Blake, head of Sony/Columbia Pictures distribution. On Tuesday night alone, “Men in Black” grossed $4.8 million from the evening shows that started at 8.

“It ranks right up there as one of the biggest openings of all time, with nothing of course beating ‘Lost World,’ ” Blake said. “It remains to be seen how the weekend will play out.”

Until that’s revealed on Monday, what Sony/Columbia does know is that it can boast beating “Mission: Impossible’s” impressive $11.7-million Wednesday opening in 1996.

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“If [“Men in Black”] continues to perform like this, it has the chance to be the biggest performer Columbia ever produced,” added Blake.

Right now, “Ghostbusters,” which was released July 4, 1984, holds that record for Columbia; it eventually grossed $221 million domestically, according to the box-office tracking firm Exhibitor Relations.

Meanwhile, Columbia can revel in knowing that “Men in Black” grabbed about 60% of the total $25.6-million box office Wednesday. Competitor Wayne Lewellen, distribution chief for Paramount Pictures, said: “Anytime you gobble up that much, it affects everybody.”

Paramount’s “Face/Off,” Universal’s “Lost World: Jurassic Park” and Disney’s “Con Air"--all action films with the same targeted audience as “Men in Black"--dropped an average of about 25% per day over the two-day opening of “Men in Black.” But Warner Bros.’ “Batman & Robin” was hit the hardest, dropping 64% from Tuesday to Wednesday, a Warner studio executive said.

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Still, some executives, like Blake, think that talk of precipitous drop-offs is “unfair.”

“So many people see the picture the first week because there is always a screen available, and they don’t have to wait until the following week,” Blake said. “That’s why the numbers are so big now, and that’s why the percentage drop-off seems so big from week to week.”

Blake said the way to chart a success of a movie is not by the weekly drop-off but by what it makes when all revenues are counted.

“We’re literally six weeks into the summer, and we’ve got six films that have a chance at $100 million,” said Blake, naming “Con Air,” “Batman & Robin,” “Face/Off,” “Hercules,” “My Best Friend’s Wedding” and, of course, “Men in Black” as possible contenders. Plus there are several others coming that could make the $100-million club, including “Contact,” “Conspiracy Theory” and “Air Force One,” he said.

What “Men in Black” has done is “expand the marketplace,” said Dick Cook, president of Walt Disney’s Motion Picture Group. He said of all the films playing, the least affected by “Men in Black’s” strong opening were Disney’s “Hercules” and Sony/TriStar’s “My Best Friend’s Wedding.” “Hercules” kept pace with its daily take of about $3.7 million Wednesday, Cook said.

It remains to be seen how the numbers will shake out for the full holiday week run-though.

That weeklong wait will be a fitful one for “Men in Black’s” angst-ridden director Barry Sonnenfeld.

“I go to the Loews [in New York] Tuesday night, it’s got six screens so I can see it with an audience the first time,” he said. “I went crazy. The [sound wasn’t] right, it was too hot, there weren’t enough seats. I’m asking people to move down so people standing can have a seat. I’m checking out every theater. My wife says to me, ‘Barry, we’re leaving. You can’t let it go.’ They won’t let me into the theaters now. I’m too disruptive. Yes, I’m nervous.”

But the self-effacing New Yorker says he’s “thrilled for Sony and Columbia.”

“I should be happy,” he said. “OK, OK, I’m happy.

“But there’s still so many days to go. So why do I feel like I let Sony down because this isn’t ‘Independence Day’?”

Let Sony down? Not likely.

“We’re pleased with this,” Blake said. “Right now, we have no complaints.”

As for two other films that opened Wednesday, Fox said its “Out to Sea” scored $750,480 on its first day and Warner’s “Wild America” opened to about $520,000.


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