‘Primary’ not primo

Steady ship keeps U opener at No. 2

Universal’s political satire “Primary Colors” failed to muster enough votes to unseat 20th Century Fox and Paramount’s 14-term incumbent “Titanic” from the top of the box office chart.

In the final weekend before tonight’s Oscar presentation, multi-nominee “Titanic” took in $17.3 million, down just 1% from the previous weekend.

“Primary Colors,” which stars John Travolta as a scandal-plagued U.S. candidate based not-so-loosely on Bill Clinton, had to settle for the No. 2 spot with $12.4 million. Released in 1,964 polling places, the Mike Nichols-helmed pic averaged a popular $6,314 per precinct.

“This is not a film that was going to open to $30 million,” said Nikki Rocco, Universal distribution president. “But American audiences sought it out on a pre-Oscar weekend. I don’t mind taking home the silver medal.”

“Colors” may have been upstaged somewhat by the real-life sexual allegations currently rocking the White House. Still, Rocco said she is confident the film, which appealed overwhelmingly to older audiences, will hold up well in coming weeks.

Rocco noted that “Colors’ ” opening topped those of previous presidential comedies “Dave” and “The American President.”

“Dave,” which opened to $7 million in May 1993, finished its run with $63 million; “President” debuted with $10 million at its Thanksgiving 1995 release, eventually topping out at $60 million.

“Colors” was co-financed by Mark Gordon and Gary Levinsohn’s Mutual Film Co. and its overseas distribution partners in exchange for foreign rights. The picture’s U.S.-centric theme may be a tougher sell abroad, however, as indicated by the weekend’s softer Canadian numbers.

MGM’s “The Man in the Iron Mask,” which last weekend came closer than any picture so far to pushing “Titanic” out of the top berth, moved down a notch to third place. The period actioner dropped 35% to $11.2 million.

In fourth place, Mandalay and Sony’s thriller “Wild Things” bowed to $9.6 million in 2,177 cages or $4,410 per screen.

The John McNaughton-helmed film, which stars Kevin Bacon, Matt Dillon and teen heartthrobs Neve Campbell and Denise Richards, proved effective counter-programming to the older-skewing “Colors.” Sources put the pic’s production budget in the mid-$20 million range.

The weekend’s other wide opener, New Line’s Jackie Chan actioner “Mr. Nice Guy,” kicked off with $5 million in 1,463 fight sequences or $3,418 per skirmish.

The overall box office temperature remained unseasonably high, with the total for all $500,000-plus grossers estimated at about $81 million, up 2% from a week ago. However, the tally is down about 6% from last year at this time, when Universal’s “Liar Liar” opened with $31.4 million and WB’s “Selena” bowed to $11.6 million.

Miramax’s Denis Leary starrer “Wide Awake” opened to $90,000 in 29 New York and Los Angeles theaters, for a per screen average of $3,103.

In the days leading up to the Academy Awards show, pics with Oscar noms in key categories continued to perform well.

Sony’s “As Good as It Gets” racked up a studio-projected gross of $3.3 million, up 8% over the previous frame. That brought the Jack Nicholson-Helen Hunt starrer’s cume to $125.8 million.

Miramax’s “Good Will Hunting” dropped 19% to $3.9 million, Warner Bros.’ “L.A. Confidential” slid 3% to $1.4 million and October’s “The Apostle” slipped 10% to $1.2 million.

With “Titanic” set to sail off with a locker full of statuettes tonight, the film’s ticket sales are likely to remain flat or even improve in the coming weekend. That leaves box office observers wondering which film will finally accomplish what “U.S. Marshals,” “The Man in the Iron Mask” and “Primary Colors” all failed to do: knock “Titanic” off its perch. Current speculation revolves around New Line’s costly sci-fi adventure “Lost in Space” which launches April 3.

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