B.O. thrills to ‘Relic,’ ‘Scream’

After being largely ignored throughout the holiday season, younger audiences turned out in force over the weekend to make Paramount’s horror pic “The Relic” the No. 1 grosser at $9.1 million. Meanwhile, Miramax/Dimenson’s “Scream” fell just 26% – tops among wide holdovers – landing at No. 4 with $7.4 million

For women and older moviegoers, however, “Evita” ruled – to the tune of $8.4 million – in its expansion from 22 to 704 screens.

Less succesful entries included New Line’s “Jackie Chan’s First Strike,” which bowed to a so-so $5.8 million, and Columbia and Phoenix Pictures’ “The People vs. Larry Flynt,” which seduced $5.3 million after expanding from 16 to 1,233 exposures. MGM/UA and Rysher’s “Turbulence” opened to a disastrous $4.5 million.

Paramount president of theatrical distribution Wayne Lewellen said that although the studio was not surprised to see “The Relic” atop the B.O. chart, “we are surprised at the volume of business we got given the number of films out there for the same audience.”

While “The Relic” received generally favorable reviews, word of mouth apparently played a big part in the opening weekend success. The film grossed $2.9 million on Friday and jumped 35% to $3.9 million Saturday.

Ticket sales fell back to $2 million Sunday. While youth-oriented pictures usually see a substantial Sunday droppoff, in this case there were other extenuating circumstances: football playoffs, bitter cold in the Midwest and East Coast, and freak snowstorms in the Southwest.

In fact, the games and harsh weather appeared to have a negative effect across the board Sunday, as final grosses came in well below Sunday estimates for most of the top 10 films.

After the weekend success of “Evita,” Buena Vista plans to accelerate its rollout of the Madonna starrer, upping the number of theaters by about 200 on Friday.

“If all of those screens work as well as the original ones, we could consider stepping up again,” said Chuck Viann, BV senior VP and general sales manager.

The company will need to time the release carefully in order to capitalize on upcoming awards announcements.

Total ticket sales for the weekend came to $84.3 million for the top 60 films. Comparisons to last year are problematic because the comparable weekend, Jan. 12-14, was the Martin Luther King Jr. Day frame.

Compared with the Jan. 19-21 weekend, however, business this year was up about 4%.

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