The groundhog came out of its burrow over the past weekend and found a pack of Oscar contenders in its shadow. While Columbia’s “Groundhog Day” held onto the top spot, four of the five best picture nominees experienced good to exceptional boosts in business in the post-nomination weekend. The fifth — Columbia/Castle Rock’s “A Few Good Men”– took only a modest downward hit.

“It’s no secret that the Oscar can have a tremendous effect on box office performance,” said Warner Bros. distribution chief D. Barry Reardon. “People want to see what the Academy membership says are the best pictures of the year. Sometimes audiences agree and sometimes they don’t. But, initially, they will go out big and then you need positive word-of-mouth.”

Among the Oscar hopefuls, audiences were most intrigued by Miramax’s “The Crying Game,” which was expected to earn $ 5.2 million for the weekend to rank fourth for the frame. The offbeat romantic thriller added almost 500 screens Friday to bring its total to 735 sites. Miramax added 300% more screens and, more impressively, saw revenues jump 500%. Posting a per-screen average of $ 7, 070, the film’s cume stands at $ 21.5 million.

The infusion of dollars from award contenders had an overall positive effect, expanding the marketplace by about 10% from the comparable period of 1992.

Universal’s “Army of Darkness,” the only major new release this weekend, opened in fifth place — better than tracking had presaged — and other relative newcomers continued to hold up well in the highly competitive field.

“Groundhog Day” again held the top slot with weekend projections of $ 9.5 million. The Bill Murray comedy fell a modest 24% from its opening three days to register a per-screen average of $ 5,470. Currently in 1,735 sites, it has revenues of $ 26.5 million after 10 days in release.

Buena Vista’s “Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey,” in second place, provided the company with the paws that refreshes to the yelp of $ 6.5 million. Other than the Oscar nominees, it was the only picture to see a B.O. rise for the weekend, albeit a modest 4%. With averages of approximately $ 3,630 on 1,791 screens, its cume is now $ 12.9 million.

Warner Bros.’ “Sommersby” dropped 29% to rank third with an estimated $ 6.3 million. The period romantic who-is-it has been surprisingly resilient and that commercial potency has WB gearing up for a quicker overseas playoff. Averaging about $ 3,700 from 1,702 engagements, it has earned $ 27.8 million in three weekends.

“The Crying Game” surprised industry pundits with its strong and consistent nationwide performance. In Little Rock, the heart of new America, it was expected to do $ 5,000 and $ 4,000 on its two debuting screens. Similar levels were recorded in such diverse cities as Butte, Mont., Lubbock, Texas, and Dayton , Ohio. New dates in Oklahoma City and Savannah, Ga., posted significantly larger grosses, attesting to pic’s extremely high want-to-see quotient.

The other Oscar best picture nominees all saw some degree of B.O. benefit from award linkage.

Although they both finished outside the top 10, Sony Pictures Classics’ “Howards End” and WB’s “Unforgiven” can attribute B.O. bounces to Wednesday’s announcements.

Merchant-Ivory’s “Howards End” cued a major expansion to Oscar, adding about 230 screens to bring its new count to 282. Initial tracking indicated a gross of $ 1.1 million and a per-screen average of almost $ 4,000. It is the highest number of prints simultaneously in release for the film and the good weekend showing brings its cume to $ 19.3 million. Warner Bros.’ Oscar relaunch of “Unforgiven” generated a per-screen of about $ 2,000 from 810 dates. Depending on one’s source, the $ 1.6 million weekend figure was either higher or lower than studio expectations. It certainly was a credible showing for a film months out of the marketplace and with $ 75 million already packed away.

Universal’s “Scent of a Woman” finished eighth for the period with an estimated $ 3 million and a box office boost of 11%. It averaged about $ 2,480 on 1,209 screens, the same number as before the nominations were announced. To date, it has earned $ 41.8 million.

Columbia/Castle Rock’s “A Few Good Men” lost 28 venues and its gate fell 16% to $ 2.4 million, for 10th place. Commercially, its $ 127 million domestic cume and additional $ 50 million-plus foreign will be far ahead of the other nominees. For the weekend, it averaged $ 1,810 in 1,324 courtrooms.

Virtually lost in the Oscar deluge was Universal’s solid fifth-place $ 4.4 million launch of “Army of Darkness.” The oddball action-fantasy was anticipated to open in the $ 3 million-$ 3.5 million range. The opening assault on 1,387 strongholds earned averages of $ 3,170.

Though Buena Vista’s sixth-ranked animated “Aladdin” failed to nab major Oscar nominations, its magic continued with about $ 4.3 million emanating for the weekend. Down 21% from the previous frame, it posted averages of $ 2,470 from 1,737 playdates. Cume to date is $ 179 million.

MGM’s “Untamed Heart” dropped a mere 11% in its second weekend to finish seventh with an estimated $ 3.2 million. Currently in 1,123 dates, its weekend average was $ 2,850 for a 10-day cume of $ 9 million.

New Line’s “National Lampoon’s Loaded Weapon 1″ continued to sink, winding up ninth with about $ 2.9 million. The spoof poofed by 45%, for a per-screen average of $ 1,500 in 1,984 sites. Total to date is $ 21.3 million.

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