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H’wood fast track

'97 B.O. passes billion mark in record time

The strong Friday debuts of “Donnie Brasco” and “Booty Call” propelled the year’s domestic box office to $1 billion in a record 59 days. That puts 1997 very much on track for a $6 billion-plus year.

Fueled by especially strong February business, the level was reached 10 days faster than in the previous pace-setter year, 1996. Since 1994, the time it’s taken to notch a billion has been shaved by three weeks.

Though January box office has increased for six consecutive years, February moviegoing has been on a rollercoaster ride. Downturns in the past two years have tended to extend through March and into April. However, there was never any question that the first quarter of 1997 would have a release schedule filled with event pictures and star vehicles.

However, the accelerated pace probably owes more to the “Star Wars” trilogy reissues by Fox than to any other factor. The theatrical response to the first two chapters has now soared to a level 100% greater than the initial conservative studio projections.

While Fox clearly has the best B.O. returns on a per-release basis, it trails Sony by about $8 million in the race for total market share. For the year to date, Sony pics have grossed almost $195 million, for 19.5% of the big picture. Fox, with seven films tracked, has an 18.7% share.

The traditional market leaders, Buena Vista and Warner Bros., will undoubtedly be working to catch up between March and Labor Day. BV currently is ranked third with 14.2%, and WB had a very slow start, with its six tracked pictures accounting for just 5.5% of the box office cume.

The 121 titles tracked through Feb. 28 numbers six more than for the comparable period of 1996.

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