‘MICHAEL’ CHARMS B.O.

After all the chips were counted Monday, New Line’s “Michael” left the table the winner of the weekend box office game with $12,144,926, a little more than $100,000 ahead of Sony’s “Jerry Maguire.” Sunday studio esti-mates put both films at $12.5 million.

But while “Michael” won the battle, there is little doubt that “Maguire,” in release since Dec. 13, will win the holi-day box office war. The Tom Cruise starrer has already grossed $83 million after just 3-1/2 weeks, and shows little sign of slowing, dropping just 14% from the post-Christmas frame. The romantic comedy appears headed to a final cume of between $130 million and $150 million.

In its second weekend, “Michael” saw a 30% drop; cume to-date for the John Travolta fantasy is $52.7 million. The film will likely top out somewhere between $85 million and $100 million.

New Line president of marketing and distribution Mitch Goldman is optimistic the film can hit the $100 million mark. “Our strength is in the small towns where we’re outgrossing “Jerry Maguire.” Goldman said. “It may not have greatest legs in Century City or on the East Side of New York, because it has a less urbane feeling to it. It’s more broad-based, compared to the typical Nora Ephron film.”

Both pictures may be in for a rough ride over the next month, however, when 19 films are due to open or expand into wide release.

The crush for screens begins Friday, when Buena Vista’s “Evita” and Sony’s “The People vs. Larry Flynt” go wide and three similarly targeted films, MGM/UA’s “Turbulence,” Paramount’s “Relic” and New Line’s Jackie Chan ac-tioner “First Strike” all open. The influx is forcing less successful Christmas releases to give up screens around the country: Warner Bros.’ “Mars Attacks!” and “My Fellow Americans,” BV’s “The Preacher’s Wife” and Par’s 12-day-old “Evening Star” reportedly are all taking hits.

Other January openers include Buena Vista’s Eddie Murphy action comedy “Metro,” TriStar’s Chris Farley vehicle “Beverly Hills Ninja,” Universal’s comedy “Fierce Creatures,” Gramercy’s “Gridlock’d” and Trimark’s “Meet Wally Sparks.” On Jan. 31, 20th Century Fox reissues “Star Wars;” the following weekend Universal’s volcano pic “Dante’s Peak” erupts and Castle Rock’s Clint Eastwood starrer “Absolute Power” takes the stand.

Ticket sales for the top 60 films came to $93.3 million over the weekend, an 18% improvement over the Jan. 5, 1996, weekend, and only an 18% drop from the post-Christmas frame.

For the entire 17-day Christmas holiday period, from Dec. 20 through Jan. 5, total box office came to a festive $458 million, or an average of $26.9 million per day.

While this year’s mid-week holidays make direct comparisons with 1995 difficult, the 14-day holiday period last year, Dec. 22 through Jan. 1, came to $361 million, or $25.8 million per day.

Because Christmas and New Year’s fell on Wednesdays this year, the season was expanded to include three weekends rather than the usual two.

Despite a widespread perception that this holiday period was the most crowded ever, the number of wide releases was actually down slightly from 1995. Last year, between Dec. 15 and Jan. 1, 10 films went out in 600 or more theaters. This year, a still-substantial nine pics bowed wide during the period.

However, an onslaught of limited releases stiffened competition for media coverage, making it harder to get moviegoers’ attention.

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