The Grisham gang shot up the weekend box office as Warner Bros.’ “The Pelican Brief” led the frame with an estimated $ 16.6 million. Universal provided a one-two punch with the wide release of “Beethoven’s 2nd” debuting fourth with $ 5.5 million, and the limited launch of “Schindler’s List” receiving a heady $ 600,000 over the three-day sesh from a mere 25 engagements.

“Pelican Brief’s” preem estab-lished a new all-time non-sequel gross for the month of December. Only “Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country” in 1991 with $ 18.1 million bests it. The star-powered legal thriller displayed the type of momentum that has been largely absent from seasonal releases. Its average of $ 8 ,330 from 1,993 playdates should fuel a $ 100 million-plus box office.

Fox’s “Mrs. Doubtfire” again held strong, to clinch second spot with about $ 8.6 million. The star cross-dresser slipped a modest 15% for a $ 3,760 average from 2,290 dressing rooms. That pushes its cume to $ 72.2 million.

Paramount’s “Wayne’s World 2″ crumbled some 56% in its second weekend, for a third-place finish of $ 5.9 million. The studio has definitely experienced a bad case of sequelitis during the holidays, with both “Wayne” and

“Addams Family Values” getting short shrift despite good reviews and audience response. “WW2″ snagged a $ 2,440 average from 2,414 prints for a 10-day cume of $ 22.6 million.

The weekend box office once again saw a modest boost of 5% from a week earlier but continued to trail the comparable weekend of 1992 by 8%.

The prospect of $ 100 million box office weeks leading into the new year now looks overly optimistic.

Waiting until last minute

And with the year to date sitting at $ 4.75 billion, the prospect of topping 1990’s $ 4.93 billion record becomes increasingly unlikely unless there’s a surge of Christmas movie shopping.

Universal roped in $ 5.5 million for “Beethoven’s 2nd” to nab fourth spot for the weekend. While far from a howling success, the sequel performed pretty much as anticipated, with its strongest appeal coming from kids and families. It weighed in with a $ 2,700 average at 2,036 kennels.

Considerably more dynamic was the studio’s opening $ 600,000 weekend on “Schindler’s List,” which will rank it 12th in the marketplace.

The holocaust drama, which has received top honors from Los Angeles and New York critics orgs as well as the National Board of Review, saw near-capacity business, with a $ 24,000 average from 25 engagements. The Wednesday opener has rung up about $ 900,000 in five days.

A Universal spokeswoman said the studio was elated by exit polls that showed the film playing better than 2-1 to a non-Jewish audience; media attention and awards recognition are being credited for adding breadth to what was anticipated as a largely ethnic crowd for the opening.

Other limited openers were less buoyant. Paramount’s “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape” had a decent $ 70,000 vintage from six wineries for an $ 11,600 average press. Fine Line’s Cannes-prized “Naked” bared about $ 33,000 from four exposures for an average of $ 8,250. And Warner Bros.’ “Wrestling Ernest Hemingway” pinned $ 15,000 in four bouts for a less-than-knockout $ 3,750 average.

MGM’s second weekend of “Six Degrees of Separation” held well on its two screens with a $ 37,000 weekend. The moral comedy abated some 30% for a cume of about $ 128,000.

Touchstone’s second weekend of “Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit” slid 37% to rank fifth with $ 4.8 million. There were no hosannas for the film’s $ 2,230 average in 2,149 rectories. After 10 days of release, it has a cume of $ 14.5 million.

Columbia’s “Geronimo: An American Legend” bailed out a reported $ 2.3 million to finish sixth. Plunging 43% for the frame, the historic saga was ill-equipped with a $ 1,430 average in 1,605. It has a cume of $ 7.8 million.

Warner Bros.’ “A Perfect World” was not quite ideal in seventh with $ 1.5 million. The star-driven dramatic thriller fell 47% for an average ride of $ 880 from 1,710 tours. Its cume is $ 25.3 million.

Happy about ‘Grumpy’

Costner and Eastwood will likely be turfed out next weekend by unlikely fresh recruits Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau. Their WB “Grumpy Old Men” was sneaked for the second straight weekend with positive results. Its 650 peeks generated, not surprisingly, strongest response with ages 25 and older and could corral sizable returns by collaring that market.

Buena Vista/Disney’s “The Three Musketeers” continued to buckle, ranking eighth with $ 1.2 million. The period lark ebbed 37% to register an average $ 940 from 1,280 forays. It has crossed swords for $ 43 million to date.

Declining to ninth with about $ 1.1 million was Paramount’s “Addams Family Values.” The spooky sequel scared up just $ 700 per from 1,581 ooky locales for a gloomy decline of 42%. The sequel cume has rung up $ 40.7 million.

Miramax’s “The Piano” hit a $ 1 million chord to rank 10th. Recent critics’ prizes for star Holly Hunter and director/scripter Jane Campion failed to raise the decibel count for the steamy period drama, which nonetheless had a tuneful average of $ 3,860 from 259 recitals. Falling 24% for the frame, its current cume is $ 10.9 million.

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