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May B.O. up 2% over ’97

'Impact,' Horse Whisperer' drive marketplace

May domestic box office edged ahead of 1997’s performance by 2% to close Sunday with a tally $514.5 million. It fell shy of 1996’s record frame by roughly 1% and ranked well behind both years in the number of tickets sold for the month.

The slight bump in monthly box office was surprising in light of “Godzilla’s” steep sophomore drop and an overall weekend decline of about 25%. However, early May biz from Paramount’s “Deep Impact” and Buena Vista’s “The Horse Whisperer” outpaced last year’s early summer combo of “Fathers’ Day” and “The Fifth Element.”

Admissions slipped to a tad more than 91 million tickets, a decline of 1% from last year and 5% from 1996. The summer moviegoing trend of the 1990s has been a virtually consistent B.O. increase while attendance has ebbed.

Paramount and Sony were in a close race for the market share crown on the strength of juggernaut pictures. Par was ahead at the finish by less than 1%. Combined, the two companies accounted for half of May’s business.

Repeating the “Lost World” mistake of ’97, rival distribs gave “Godzilla” a wide berth, and as a result there weren’t any significant counter-programming options to bolster overall grosses. The seasonal release pattern could well result in a summer of fits and starts.

The disappointment of the event titles appeared to have energized niche pics, which have traditionally hibernated from May to August. Among the better specialized performers were Sony Pictures Classics’ “The Spanish Prisoner” and “Wilde,” “Sliding Doors” from Miramax, Trimark’s “Chinese Box,” a fast start for Gramercy’s “The Last Days of Disco” and big biz for large-screen offerings “Africa’s Elephant Kingdom” and “Everest.”

The top-performing individual title was “Deep Impact,” followed by, in descending order, Sony’s “Godzilla,” Buena Vista’s “The Horse Whisperer,” War-ner Bros.’ “City of Angels,” Buena Vista’s “He Got Game,” Paramount’s “Titanic,” Fox’s “Bulworth,” Warner Bros.’ “Quest for Camelot,” Fox’s “Hope Floats” and Sony’s “Les Miserables.”

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