February box office performance smashed all prior groundhog months, with a staggering $479.9 million cume. That’s a hefty $90 million better than the prior record set a year ago (and encompassing 29 days), and represents a 23% boost in gross.

The month was largely dominated by the reissues of the first two installments of the “Star Wars” trilogy. The maiden voyage was easily the frame’s best performing title, with a B.O. of $107 million in the 28-day period. Combined with the first eight days of “The Empire Strikes Back,” the two movies corralled 28.6% of February business.

Admissions up by 20%

It was also the best-ever February for movie-going with an estimated 105.7 million admissions. That represents an increase of 20% from 1996 and betters the former record set in 1991 by approximately 13%.

Still, “Star Wars” was not the only force in the domestic cine empire. Universal’s event “Dante’s Peak” and Columbia’s Eastwood actioner “Absolute Power” were also significant elements in propelling the marketplace to stratospheric heights.

Also on the ascendant was specialized box office returns. A prime factor there was the number of high-profile Oscar nominations accorded such titles as “Shine,” “Secrets & Lies” and “Sling Blade.” Even “Jerry Maguire” and “The English Patient,” which were in general release, provided enough fuel to equal last year’s performance from Academy Award contenders.

February flux

February has traditionally provided an eclectic mixture of popular comedies, thrillers and unusual dramas. As a result, monthly returns have fluctuated more than in any other period of the year. This year’s heavy reliance on popcorn entertainment pics saw one of the most palpable year-to-year increases of the past decade.

Following “Star Wars,” the top individual performers (in descending order) were: Universal’s “Dante’s Peak,” Sony’s “Absolute Power,” Fox’s “The Empire Strike Back,” Warner Bros.’ “Vegas Vacation,” Sony’s “Jerry Maguire” and “Fools Rush In,” Miramax’s “The English Patient” and “Scream” and Buena Vista’s “Evita.”

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