'Sense' Shows Its Powers

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In what proved to be a surprising weekend at the movies, five new films battled it out and, unexpectedly, only "The Sixth Sense" proved up to the fight. But the Bruce Willis psychological thriller was the only new release able to supplant the ongoing success of "The Blair Witch Project" and "Runaway Bride."

Originally a fall entry, Disney sensibly moved "Sixth Sense" into summer and used favorable reviews and creepy TV spots to effectively muscle its way into first place, with an opening weekend estimated at $25.8 million in 2,161 theaters--almost $12,000 a theater. That's the biggest August debut ever, supplanting 1993's "The Fugitive." According to Disney, a majority of the ticket buyers arrived in couples, ranging in age from 18 to 49.

"Blair Witch" successfully avoided the dreaded second weekend curse most horror films experience by doubling its number of theaters to 2,142 and keeping box office decline down to a minor 16% from the first national weekend's amazing $29.2 million. The only cap on the film's appeal is some resistance from less-sophisticated older audiences to "Blair's" home-movie-style aspects.

Still, the second weekend of wide release for the chiller was a hot $24.5 million, with its $11,438 per screen average only slightly lower than that of "Sixth Sense." With $80 million now in the bank, the $1.1-million Artisan Entertainment acquisition should find its way through the woods to the $100-million clearing by next weekend and emerge as the biggest independent hit ever from the Sundance Film Festival and easily the most profitable non-studio film.

Third place went to "Runaway Bride," which found itself competing with both "Sixth Sense" and "Thomas Crown" for older audiences, dropping an expected 40% from its strong $35-million debut to a still hearty $21 million in 3,161 theaters. With a 10-day total of $74 million, "Bride" could end up second only to "Pretty Woman" among Julia Roberts' hits.

"The Thomas Crown Affair," starring Pierce Brosnan and Rene Russo, fell well short of "Runaway Bride," opening to an estimated $14.6 million in 2,427 theaters. But the romantic caper got a particularly big 40% bump from Friday to Saturday night, indicating that older audiences will be its mainstay--60% of ticket buyers were over age 30--and giving the film a good chance to build word of mouth and hang on through Labor Day.

At least "Thomas Crown" got off the ground. The ensemble comic-book comedy "Mystery Men" seemed to have cult film written all over it, which, given its high budget--at least $65 million--was not good enough to gross more than an estimated $10 million in its first weekend in 2,132 theaters. If there's a victim of "Blair Witch's" hip quotient, it's "Mystery Men," which attracted only the very young (8- to 14-year-olds). Universal had dropped the film back a week, hoping to get out of "Witch's" way, but it didn't work, giving the studio its first disappointment in what has been an extremely profitable summer ("The Mummy," "Notting Hill" and "American Pie").

As for "The Iron Giant" and "Dick," the news was almost all bad. Both films were well-received and adeptly sold. But in the unusually competitive August market, there just wasn't enough audience left for them. The animated "Iron Giant" is another blow for Warner Bros.' animation division, at least commercially. "Giant" opened to a weak $5.7 million in 2,179 theaters.

Like "Election" earlier this year, "Dick" got caught between demographics. The Watergate-era comedy is basically a teen movie for adults. But it didn't attract either audience in sufficient numbers, debuting in an 11th-place tie with "The Phantom Menace," grossing an impeachable $2.2 million in 1,522 theaters and an unfunny total of $3.4 million in its first five days of release.

Whether they performed up to expectations or not, the new films invigorated the August box office. Three films grossed more than $20 million apiece and six films sold $10 million in tickets or more. Even with most older films dropping 40 percent or more, attendance for the past three days was down only slightly from last weekend's non-holiday record, as the last summer of the century goes out with a bang.

According to Variety, the summer is running 23% ahead of last year, after a particularly hot July that shattered last year's record take by 13%. The top 12 films this past weekend collected almost $136 million, according to Exhibitor Relations, which is only 2.5% behind last weekend's sizzling $139-million total and a remarkable 33% ahead of last year's cumulative take for the dozen top ticket sellers.

Warner Bros.' "Deep Blue Sea," its one bright spot in an otherwise disappointing summer, tumbled 42% in its second weekend to a still toothy estimate of $11 million in 2,901 theaters, floating the shark movie to a $45-million 10-day total.

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