‘RELIC’ UNEARTHS $9.4 MIL

'Evita' melodic at No. 2

Paramount’s museum thriller ”The Relic” jumped out of a pack of young-male-oriented newcomers to scare up a studio-estimated $9.4 million opening weekend gross. The Peter Hyams-helmed pic opened in 2,095 exhibits for a solid $4,487 average, despite harsh weather in much of the country and competition for its core audience from NFL playoff games.

In second place, ”Evita” gave domestic distributor Buena Vista something to sing about, grossing a projected $8.6 million after expanding from 22 to 704 theaters. That’s a catchy $12,216 per-screen average for the Alan Parker-helmed musical biopic, which has cumed $11.2 million since its exclusive bow Dec. 25.

The studio’s estimate is based on an extremely upbeat prediction of Sunday’s box office, but execs at most rival studios agreed ”Evita” was firmly ensconced in second place.

”While everybody’s watching football games on Sunday, our natural audience is avoiding them,” said Chuck Vi-ann, senior vice president and general sales manager of Buena Vista Distribution.

New Line’s ”Michael” and Sony’s ”Jerry Maguire,” which locked horns in a fierce battle for the top slot last weekend, dropped to the No. 3 and 4 spots at $8.5 million and $7.8 million, respectively, according to their distributors’ projections.

Audiences were less attracted to ”The People vs. Larry Flynt,” which hustled up only $5.6 million after expanding from 16 to 1,233 theaters, putting it in seventh place for the frame with a $4,542 average. Despite strong exclusive runs, Golden Globe noms and critical kudos, the Milos Forman-helmed picture didn’t play in Peoria.

Hard sell

”It’s not the easiest sell in the South and Midwest,” said Jeff Blake, president of Sony Pictures Releasing. But Blake believes positive word of mouth and possible Oscar nominations will convince moviegoers in the more so-cially conservative areas to take a peek at the film. ”It’s going to take a while, but we think it will catch up.”

Paramount’s ”Mother” cuddled up to $1.4 million after expanding from seven to 159 screens. While that’s a cozy $9,119 average, it remains to be seen how the Albert Brooks comedy will fare when its release pattern widens further, starting Friday. Cume to date is $2 million.

Distribution execs, who only recently were bemoaning the glut of holiday releases targeted at older women, this weekend saw the pendulum swing wildly in the opposite direction. In addition to ”The Relic” and ”Larry Flynt,” young males had their pick of two more freshman pics, ”First Strike” and ”Turbulence,” as well as successful holdovers ”Scream” and ”Beavis and Butt-head Do America.”

The preponderance of options for that key sector of the marketplace, plus the impressive expansion of ”Evita,” led the weekend box office to an estimated $79 million total for all films grossing over $500,000.

”First Strike,” New Line’s latest Jackie Chan actioner, landed in sixth place with $6.5 million in 1,344 battles, for a $4,836 average. The take was off roughly a third from the $9.6 million debut of New Line’s last Chan chopsocky offering, ”Rumble in the Bronx,” which opened on Feb. 23 last year.

Meanwhile, in eighth place, the MGM/UA-distributed ”Turbulence” had trouble getting off the ground, grossing only $4.4 million in its maiden voyage. Produced by Rysher Entertainment for an estimated $60 million, the air-borne thriller touched down in 2,094 runways, giving it a disastrous $2,101 average. The bumpy takeoff extends a string of disappointments for Rysher, which also financed Paramount’s D.O.A. Christmas release, ”The Evening Star.”

‘Scream’ not fading

Of the wide holdovers, Miramax/Dimension’s ”Scream” showed the best staying power, dipping just 24% to $7.6 million. In fifth place for the weekend, the Wes Craven horror comedy haunted 1,833 houses for a $4,146 average. Cume after 24 days is $50.2 million.

In ninth place, 20th Century Fox’s ”One Fine Day” tumbled 42% to $3.6 million. Dawning in 1,861 locations, the George Clooney-Michelle Pfeiffer romantic comedy averaged $1,934 per rendezvous. Cume after 24 days is $37.5 million.

”Beavis and Butt-head Do America” dropped 48% to $3 million in 1,984 situations for a $1,512 average. Cume for the Mike Judge-helmed tooner is $58.8 million.

Among limited releases, Miramax’s ”The English Patient” dropped just 22% to $2.1 million in 561 locations for a $3,743 average; cume after nearly two months in release is $31 million.

New Line’s ”Shine” lost 31% of its luster to gross $1.1 million on 207 screens for a $5,314 average; cume is $9.2 million. Miramax’s ”Everyone Says I Love You” jumped 67% to $95,000 after expanding from three to four screens. With a $23,750 per-screen average, the Woody Allen tuner has cumed $397,000 since its December Os-car-qualifying run.

Castle Rock and Sony’s ”Hamlet” was off just 2% from the previous weekend, collecting $87,000 in the same three theaters in New York, Toronto and L.A. for a $29,000 average. Cume is $477,000.

New Line’s ”Michael” was off 30%, according to New Line’s optimistic projection of $8.5 million. On 2,276 clouds, the John Travolta starrer averaged $3,735 per screen. Cume after 19 days is $63.9 million. Sony’s ”Jerry Maguire” dropped 35% to $7.8 million in 2,450 situations for a $3,184 average. After one month in release, the Tom Cruise starrer has cumed $94.1 million.

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