$22.3 mil bow may lead to delayed 'Return'

Twentieth Century Fox’s “The Empire Strikes Back” struck box office gold over the weekend with an estimated $22.3 million opening, setting a February opening record and driving total ticket sales to a new high for the period.

The second installment of the “Special Edition” reissue bowed in 2,110 theaters for an imperial $10,568 per-screen average. The three-day haul put “Empire’s” lifetime cume at $245 million, moving it from No. 15 to No. 11 on Daily Variety’s list of all-time domestic box office champs.

Meanwhile, “Star Wars,” which topped the chart for the previous three weeks, moved into the No. 2 slot, with a still-stellar $11 million estimate. Third and fourth place went to holdovers “Absolute Power” and “Dante’s Peak,” with projected weekend grosses of $9 million and $7 million, respectively.

The weekend’s only other wide opener, Warner Bros.’ “Rosewood,” bowed to $3.2 million in 991 theaters, according to studio projections. The John Singleton-helmed historical drama landed in eighth place for the weekend, with a $3,229 per-screen average.

Fox execs now are considering delaying by one week the opening of “Return of the Jedi,” the third installment of the trilogy, to give the middle picture more time to play off. The move would push “Jedi’s” arrival back to March 14.

“We wanted to wait and see what effect ‘Empire’ had on ‘Star Wars,’ and vice versa,” said Tom Sherak, chairman of 20th Domestic Film Group. A final decision will be made today.

While the $22.3 million debut is less than two-thirds of the $35.9 million bow of “Star Wars'” on Jan. 31, it’s still the highest opening ever in February, topping the $18.5 million record set by Universal’s “Dante’s Peak” just two weeks before.

The presence of the two “Star Wars” pics helped drive the overall weekend total to about $83 million for films grossing $500,000 or more. That’s a 26% increase over last year’s record high of $66 million.

The total for all films in the market is likely to top $87 million, compared to last year’s $73 million. The two sci-fi adventures accounted for about 38% of that total.

Bad ‘Blood’

Among limited openers, Fox Searchlight’s “Blood and Wine” sucked up $425,000 in 166 vineyards for an anemic $2,560 average, while October’s “Lost Highway” found $205,000 on 10 off-ramps for a promising $20,500 per exit.

Castle Rock and Sony Classics expanded two films with mixed results: Christopher Guest’s “Waiting for Guffman” took in $900,000 after widening to 277 theaters, or $3,249 per screen, while Richard Linklater’s “SubUrbia” grossed $1.2 million in 566 playdates, or $2,101 per screen.

“Star Wars” made its money in 2,200 space stations for a $5,000 average. Cume for the pic’s reissue is $115.9 million; since its opening in 1977, the sci-fi classic has earned $438.7 million.

At No. 3, Castle Rock and Columbia’s “Absolute Power” remained “the highest-grossing film in this universe,” joked Jeff Blake, president of Sony Pictures Releasing. The Clint Eastwood-helmed political thriller collected $9 million in its second weekend, dropping 39% compared to the Friday-Sunday period of the previous holiday frame. In 2,568 situations, the film averaged $3,505; cume is $28.7 million.

Fourth place went to “Dante’s Peak,” off 41% to $7 million. In 2,767 geothermal blasts the Pierce Brosnan-Linda Hamilton starrer averaged $2,530. Cume after 17 days is $45.4 million.

Warner Bros.’ “Vegas Vacation” lost 42% of its previous weekend wages to gross $6.6 million. In 2,070 crapshoots, the Chevy Chase starrer averaged $3,188 per roll of the dice. The broad comedy has cumed $21.4 million in 10 days.

Columbia’s romantic comedy “Fools Rush In” dropped 35% to woo $5.6 million in 1,701 courtships, or $3,292 per playdate. Now in its second week of release, the Matthew Perry-Salma Hayek starrer has cumed $16.6 million.

‘Darn’ sews up seventh

At No. 7, Buena Vista’s “That Darn Cat” slid 28% to scratch up $3.6 million in 1,891 locations, or $1,901 per site. The remake has earned $10.2 million in 10 days.

TriStar’s Oscar nominee “Jerry Maguire,” now in its eleventh week, took in $3.1 million. Off 32% from last weekend, the Tom Cruise starrer unspooled in 1,506 houses for a $2,058 average. Cume to date is $131.7 million.

At No. 10, Miramax’s “The English Patient” dropped 30% to $2.8 million. In 1,186 playdates, the Ralph Fiennes starrer had a $2,361 average. Cume is $51.5 million.

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