The weekend box office horse race saw Paramount’s “The Firm” nose past Columbia/Castle Rock’s “In the Line of Fire.” The Tom Cruise legal thriller took first with $ 13,281,416 and print averages of $ 5,550. It represented a modest 26% drop for the picture to bring its cume to $ 95.8 million. That places it fourth for the year and 92nd among domestic earners.

Not far behind with $ 13,056,252 and averages ofMDRV$ 6,250 was “Line of Fire.” The Clint Eastwood thriller held up better, dropping just 14%. But, unlike “The Firm,” the picture failed to get that hard-to-define initial propulsion needed for a monster smash. With $ 36 million after 10 days, it should chug along nicely through the summer with better than a $ 100 million gross.

This week’s major national debuts provide a number of interesting indicators of what’s to come before Labor Day. Buena Vista’s “Hocus Pocus” may not have been magical but its $ 8,125,471, fourth-ranked weekend was no illusion. The family comedy, featuring a witchy Bette Midler, had positive averages of $ 5,682 .

Again, not far behind in fifth, with $ 7,868,829 and $ 5,331 averages, was Warner Bros.’ “Free Willy.” Both films clearly were geared for a comparable audience and both attracted a sizable slice of the same demographic profile. Still, neither is a runaway hit and both will have to expand beyond their core audience.

With the wave of juggernaut titles now virtually passed — and those films firmly entrenched in theaters — new releases are entering the marketplace like shock troops. Week after week they come, grab a piece of beach and then fall back. There simply aren’t enough screens to accommodate midrange pictures.

So with the possible exceptions of Warner Bros.’ “The Fugitive” and Fox’s “Rising Sun,” it’s going to be very tough for the dozen-plus studio releases that comprise the rest of the summer to get a toehold. Scanning the terrain definitely leads to the conclusion that bigger is better.

Universal has generated almost all its summer tally from a single film. Check your pulse if you’ve forgotten its name.

A year ago, Warner Bros. was top dog on the basis of two dynamos –”Batman Returns” and “Lethal Weapon 3″– which put the company, like Universal, $ 100 million ahead of the competition.But where there were more clearly defined winners and losers in 1992, this year cries out for closer scrutiny.

Consider that after the weekend, the second- and fifth-ranked companies were separated by revenues of less than $ 8 million.

The group includes TriStar, Buena Vista, Paramount and Warner Bros. Among these, TriStar and Paramount appear to have reaped the benefits of summer viewing activity.

Buena Vista has released seven new films this summer and can’t claim a single home run.

Sixth-placed Columbia will need the second half of summer to make up for the hit that never was. Seventh-placed Fox just needs a hit and has three more chances to bust one out of the ball park.

With overall summer revenues at about $ 1.15 billion, 1993 is well ahead of last year and pulling steadily in front of the record 1989 pace.

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