New Line’s “Michael” winged to the top of the charts with $17.4 million on the final weekend of 1996. While not quite a record for Christmas weekend, the fluffy Travolta fantasy performed considerably stronger than trackers had suspected. It posted an $8,144 average and a five-day cume of $27.6 million.

“Michael” and several other films – notably Sony’s “Jerry Maguire,” Disney’s still-barking “101 Dalmatians” and, to everyone’s great surprise, Dimension’s “Scream” – are essentially propping up an unexpectedly soft year-end. Box office for the frame was down about 2% from a year ago, despite a greater number of movies playing on an increased number of screens.

“We looked at our Christmas Eve numbers compared to last year and almost got sick,” said an exec with a major exhibition chain. “Fewer films are working, and many, many movies simply never got a toehold in the marketplace. We’re desperately trying to juggle schedules on several pictures to squeeze out the best of their limited commercial appeal.”

To be fair, late December ’95 had its share of clunkers, including “Tom and Huck,” “Cutthroat Island,” “Balto” and “Dracula: Dead and Loving It.” However, Christmas past had more play-through titles, and that difference could have the most profound effect on shaping the first quarter of 1997.

Eight titles debuted on a limited basis during the frame. While opening performance is no guarantee of mainstream acceptance, it is a veritable kiss of death for the underachievers in this category. Very grim indeed are the prospects for Gramercy’s “I’m Not Rappaport,” which hobbled to $18,000 at three exclusives. Much more encouraging were the first returns of Paramount’s “Mother,” which grossed $138,000 from six screens and is now likely to receive a significant expansion in January and February.

Several films, including Sony’s “Some Mother’s Son,” may be doomed to niche markets based on yuletide B.O. fuel. But Gramercy’s “The Portrait of a Lady” and Sony/Castle Rock’s “Hamlet” – the latter doing near capacity biz at three sites – are cases where publicity and critical kudos will be utilized to expand beyond the upscale crowd.

‘Shine’ aglow

Three quality entries used the frame to broaden their screen counts, with varying degrees of success. Fox’s “The Crucible,” which added 100 playdates last week, needs a second wind following tepid showings in critical prize-giving and Golden Globe nominations. Conversely, Fine Line’s “Shine,” a major award recipient, added 200 screens Christmas Day and appears to be on a roll.

The two films likely to benefit most by platforming are off to very good starts. Disney’s “Evita” is playing to capacity crowds in New York and Los Angeles. It fans out Jan. 10, as does candidate No. 2, Columbia’s “The People vs. Larry Flynt.” The latter film launched on 16 screens for a potent $520,000 weekend. Both pictures have certainly received ink and piqued aud interest, and now face the final test of whether crowds really, really like them.

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