Comedy fuels record Sept. take

September box office rang in with a record $366.3 million, topping the 1997 benchmark by 13%. However, apart from New Line’s “Rush Hour,” the frame was largely bolstered by holdover titles.

Admissions also set a monthly record, with approximately 76.3 million torn stubs. That was 7% better than last year and surpassed the former top level, set in 1993, by 2%.

New Line easily won the September market-share crown with close to a $100 million gross and more than a quarter of the theatrical take. Its Jackie Chan-Chris Tucker action comedy exceeded all expectations. Spillover business from “Blade” was also considerably more potent than pundits had predicted.

“Rush Hour” was the month’s top individual performer with $68 million — a gross that was better than the entire monthly B.O. for second-place studio Fox.

Three of September’s top five grossers were carryovers from the summer, with pre-fall titles accounting for about one-third of the record take. New entries were soft during the span, and few specialized debuts demonstrated crossover potential or real liveliness in the niche.

The best upscale performer on a pound-for-pound basis was, ironically, October’s reissue of Orson Welles’ 1958 “Touch of Evil.” Niche players still accounted for about 8% of total business and could significantly expand their share as higher-profile titles are released for award consideration later in the year.

The mix of mainstream fare that opened last month generally had commercial response significantly less than their quality or reviews seemed to merit.

Universal’s “One True Thing” with Meryl Streep was the frame’s biggest disappointment, receiving serious media attention and talk of Oscars but now unlikely to reach even a $30 million box office level. Such films as “Urban Legend” and “Ronin” also had to be considered underachievers.

Following “Rush Hour,” the month’s top performers (in descending order) were: Fox’s “There’s Something About Mary,” New Line’s “Blade,” DreamWorks’ “Saving Private Ryan,” Miramax’s “Rounders,” MGM’s “Ronin,” Universal’s “One True Thing,” Fox’s “Ever After,” Sony’s “Urban Legend” and Buena Vista’s “Simon Birch.”

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