Serious fare wows wickets

In a season that traditionally goes for escapist entertainment, the hottest tickets at America’s movie houses are for films about the Holocaust and AIDS. Universal’s “Schindler’s List” and TriStar’s “Philadelphia” are making considerable noise in limited release.

The “Schindler” momentum has been palpable. Initially planned for a modest Christmas break, the studio addedabout 50% more screens following strong critical response and a clutch of year-end awards, including six Golden Globe nominations from the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn.

Through Christmas Day it had been playing at 25 locations, adding 49 playdates for the weekend. The Steven Spielberg-directed drama, which opened Dec. 15, was expected to gross $ 1.5 million for an average run of $ 20,270 for the sesh.

Surprising windfall

The studio is holding its breath for the Oscar and the surprising possibility that the picture could earn $ 100 million domestically. It’s fair to say that first response to the chilling material has exceeded all expectations.

The prospects for “Philadelphia,” despite a strong opening, look more uncertain. The film opened Wednesday on four screens to generate $ 40,000. Its opening weekend was estimated at $ 142,000 for a very strong per-screen average of $ 35,500. However, it had been expected to draw crowds in New York and Los Angeles; attracting auds in smaller centers, when it fans out in mid-January, could be a problem.

“Philadelphia” was largely passed over by critics’ associations and failed to get a best picture nod from the foreign press. Reviews for the film have run the gamut, so its first salvos in the marketplace are crucial.

Another limited-release heavyweight that entered the marketplace Christmas Day was Warner Bros.’ “Heaven and Earth.” The third Vietnamese foray for Oliver Stone generated about $ 38,000 from 63 screens for a soft average return of $ 6, 030.

Though highly anticipated in light of the filmmaker’s past success with Vietnam-themed pix “Platoon” and “Born on the Fourth of July,” the new outing has not been well-received critically and its opening suggests a commercial struggle.

Similarly, the Samuel Goldwyn Co.’s “The Summer House” bucked the season for a first weekend of $ 200,000 from 60 playdates. The romantic comedy in the “Enchanted April” vein saw a tame average engagement of $ 3,330.

Already struggling to maintain a toehold are Warner Bros.’ “Wrestling Ernest Hemingway” and Paramount’s “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape.””Hemingway” lost a date this weekend and mustered just $ 10,000 from three screens. “Gilbert Grape” continued on six screens for a weekend gross of $ 64,000, down about 14% from the prior weekend.

Holding unexpectedly well is MGM’s “Six Degrees of Separation,” which added 17 engagements this week, generating $ 160,000 on 19 screens. The studio has been doing an effective job of pitching the highbrow comedy, which posted an average run of $ 8,420 for the weekend.

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