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‘LIAR’ TELLS $32 MIL WHOPPER

U's Carrey pic sets March record; 'Selena' No. 2

Jim Carrey is back. Honest.

Universal and Imagine Entertainment’s “Liar Liar” caught fire over the weekend, grossing a studio-estimated $32 million — the biggest opening ever for a March release.

The Tom Shadyac-helmed comedy, which stars the rubber-faced Carrey as a lawyer who’s unable to lie for 24 hours, spoke its mind in 2,845 situations for a hope-to-die $11,248 per screen average. The debut demolished the previous March record of $25.4 million, set by New Line’s “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” in 1990. It also became Universal’s second-highest bow ever, after “Jurassic Park’s” $50.3 million debut in June 1993.

Warner Bros.’ freshman “Selena” also enjoyed a strong turnout, landing at No. 2 with $11.6 million. Appearing in 1,850 concert halls, the Jennifer Lopez starrer garnered a promising $6,270 average.

‘Godfather’: A mixed bag

Meanwhile, Paramount’s 25th anniversary limited reissue of “The Godfather” opened to mixed results, grossing a so-so $220,000 in 40 theaters, or $5,500 per engagement.

The Francis Ford Coppola mob classic saw solid numbers in its exclusive runs at upscale movie palaces in New York, L.A. and San Francisco. However, attendance was disappointing in Atlanta and Denver, two test markets where Paramount experimented with multiple bookings supported by television advertising.

The arrival of “Liar Liar” marked the end of a seven-week lock on the box office by 20th Century Fox’s “Star Wars” trilogy reissue. All three installments took hits of more than 50% compared with last weekend, and “Star Wars” dropped out of the top 10 for the first time since its Jan. 31 release.

“People love Jim Carrey and they love to laugh,” said producer Brian Grazer, commenting on “Liar Liar’s” huge opening. He added, “I think the culture gets a sense early on of whether a movie delivers or not.”

The film, the second one for which Carrey received a reported $20 million payday, was the first major project greenlit by the current Universal management team of MCA president and CEO Ron Meyer and motion picture group chairman Casey Silver.

Grazer praised Universal execs for their aggressive approach to booking the film. “With ‘Apollo 13’ we had to fight to get 2,000 screens,” he said. “They used to want to get the best per-screen average, now they want to come in first, which helps the film’s momentum. (U president of distribution) Nikki Rocco has been exceptional.”

Hispanic markets push ‘Selena’

“Selena,” Gregory Nava’s biopic of the late Tejano singing star, did especially well in markets with large Hispanic contingents including New York, Chicago, Texas and California.

The AMC Grand in Dallas sold the most tickets for “Selena,” with receipts of about $29,500 per day on both Friday and Saturday.

Barry Reardon, WB president of distribution, said that while the company was ecstatic about the pic’s larger-than-expected debut, the film was not attracting non-Latino audiences to the extent he had hoped. “We’re getting some crossover but we’re certainly looking for more,” he said. “It took ‘La Bamba’ two or three weeks to catch on with crossover audiences.”

Luis Valdez’s “La Bamba,” the 1987 biopic of Ritchie Valens — another popular Latino pop singer whose promising career was cut off at an early age — opened to $5.6 million and went on to gross $54 million.

‘Jedi’ slides 54%

In third place, “Return of the Jedi” tumbled 54% to $7.5 million in 2,111 space stations for a $3,553 average. Cume for the “Special Edition” rerelease is $27.9 million; lifetime the film has grossed $291.6 million.

Buena Vista’s “Jungle2Jungle” slid 43% to $6.2 million in 2,340 villages for a $2,650 average. Cume for the Tim Allen starrer is $35.8 million.

At No. 5, Paramount’s “Private Parts” slumped 48% to $4.5 million in 2,217 stations, or $2,030 per spot. Cume for the Howard Stern biopic after 18 days is $34.6 million.

Sony’s “Donnie Brasco” dropped 35% to $3.5 million in 1,593 locations for a $2,197 average. Now in its fourth week, the Al Pacino-Johnny Depp starrer has cumed $36.4 million.

Seventh place went to Miramax’s “Sling Blade,” which was down just 1% to $3 million in 1,020 locations, or $2,941 per site. Cume after 17 weeks of release is $12.5 million.

New Line’s sophomore “Love Jones” dipped 33% to $2.6 million in 1,020 jazz clubs for a $3,167 average. Cume after 10 days is $6.5 million.

At No. 9, Fox’s “The Empire Strikes Back” plummeted 51% to $2.5 million in 1,729 space battles for a $1,446 average. Cume since its Feb. 21 release is $63.4 million; lifetime cume is $286.1 million.

Tenth place was a tie between two best picture nominees. Miramax’s “The English Patient” grossed $1.9 million — flat with the previous weekend — in 1,002 hospital rooms for a $1,962 average. Cume is $63 million. Sony’s “Jerry Maguire” gained a percentage point to gross $1.9 million in 909 negotiations for a $2,090 average. Cume to date is $143.1 million.

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