Consumer confidence is back — at least at the box office. Patrons had more on their minds this past weekend than Christmas shopping, lending hefty support to at least four nationwide releases.

The newest arrival on the holiday bandwagon of potent grossers was Buena Vista’s “The Distinguished Gentleman.” The Hollywood Pictures production, Eddie Murphy’s first non-Paramount effort, got off to a rousing $ 10,611,040 start on 1,933 screens — somewhat under projections (Daily Variety, Dec. 7).

While the pic was unable to pull ahead of three tenacious holdovers, “Gentleman” chivalrously helped stay the seasonal post-Thanksgiving box office sag. Accepted industry wisdom that audiences will patronize only their first or second choice was skewered by the fact that four films crashed the $ 10 million gross ceiling.

Having three such high-flyers at any time of the year is considered a sign of box office vitality. The addition of a fourth — especially during an off weekend — indicates a seismic momentum. If business is this good at the bottom of the season, then last year’s Yule record no longer appears daunting.

The top-10 total of $ 57,878,203 was down 39% from the unprecedented $ 95,071 ,935 Thanksgiving weekend, but 14% ahead of last year’s $ 50,587,856. Friday’s unveiling of Columbia’s “A Few Good Men” should prop up totals for the coming weekend.

For the third weekend in a row, Fox’s “Home Alone 2: Lost in New York” led the pack, with $ 12,425,234 on 2,274 screens. Its 57% drop is in part attributable to its formidable adversary for the family audience dollar, Buena Vista’s “Aladdin” and the normal tendency of major sequels to open through-the-roof and then level off. But, like “Aladdin,” this one’s doing hot Sunday business.

The follow-up to the third largest-grossing film in U.S. history has charted $ 90.6 million in its first 17 days of release and should benefit from another upturn during the Christmas school break.

For all those who carp about star salaries, the upside potential of major talent in the right vehicle seems unlimited. A perfect example is “The Bodyguard.” The Kevin Costner-Whitney Houston production’s 33% post-holiday fall-off is less than any other film in the top 10. This female and date-night audience favorite — Saturdays are especially potent, according to Entertainment Data Inc. — ticketed $ 11,109,262 on 1,806 screens, for an amazing 12-day total of $ 40.4 million.

Even with the kids back in school, there was enough magic in “Aladdin” to keep its after-Thanksgiving drop to 43%. After 26 days, Disney’s latest animated original has taken in $ 40.3 million –$ 10,915,551 of that in its second weekend of national release on 1,131 screens.

The past weekend’s attendance was greater than that of “Beauty and the Beast” during its sizzling Christmas week–and “Beauty” was on more than 1,900 screens. “Aladdin’s” blockbuster performance is all the more impressive when you look at its per-screen average of $ 9,651.

BV competes with itself by importing another Christmas family film, “The Muppet Christmas Carol,” on Friday, which should reveal something about the elasticity of that audience quadrant.

Warners’ “Malcolm X” clearly got knocked around by the seasonal box office drop and its limited number of perfs. Third weekend was down to $ 3,771,464, a 56% decline.

EDI reports “Malcolm” is doing X-cellent in a wide variety of urban and suburban markets, indicating crossover business. And thanks to good matinee numbers, Sunday biz is ahead of Friday totals.

The 19-day cume is closeto $ 33 million. Warners exex expect group sales to help mid-week matinee numbers and are praying that year-end kudos will offset challenges from new competitors.

The real battle will be for “Malcolm X” to hold onto its playdates with so much fresh product in the wings.

The same is true for Columbia’s “Bram Stoker’s Dracula,” which lost 323 runs from the holiday weekend. That clearly hurt. The Francis Ford Coppola film lost a dangerous 63% of its business, declining to $ 3,608,605 With $ 75.5 million to date, “Dracula” will have to scrape and claw its way to $ 100 million.

Seventh-place “Passenger 57″ is still hearty, despite losing more theaters and fending off flashy big-ticket parvenus. The actioner has grossed almost $ 36 million to date, adding $ 1,859,487 over the weekend on 1,751 screens. It’s interesting to muse if “Passenger” might have flown higher and longer with more playing time before the holiday heat.

Along with “Gentleman,””Malcolm X” and “The Bodyguard,” this Wesley Snipes starrer represents the fourth film in the top 10 with Africa-American leads. That attests to not only the strength of the black audience but the mainstream acceptance of a variety of genres boasting African-American stars.

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