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‘Ryan,’ ‘Stella’ find grooves

Auds reup for Hanks pic; 'Avengers,' frosh falter as 'Mary' stretches legs

Paramount’s and DreamWorks’ “Saving Private Ryan” remained the nation’s top-ranking film for a fourth consecutive weekend, despite incursions from four new wide releases. The Tom Hanks starrer requisitioned $12.9 million in 2,654 command posts for a solid $4,861 average, according to studio projections.

Among the newcomers, 20th Century Fox’s “How Stella Got Her Groove Back” turned in the strongest performance, picking up an impressive $11.8 million to finish second. Warner Bros.’ “The Avengers” landed in third with a disappointing $10.7 million.

“Saving Private Ryan” owes a significant portion of its continued success to repeat business, according to DreamWorks distribution chief Jim Tharp. Despite the film’s nearly three-hour running time and gut-wrenching violence, a recent study showed nearly one-fifth of those attending “Ryan” had seen it before.

Ryan tops $125 mil

After a four-week tour of duty, the combat drama has cumed $125.8 million. Given its current trajectory, “Ryan” should battle its way to about $180 million domestically.

“Stella,” which stars Angela Bassett and newcomer Taye Diggs, made its money in just 1,393 theaters. The Kevin Sullivan-helmed film, based on the Terry McMillan novel about an affair between a middle-aged woman and a 20-year-old man, averaged a groovy $8,471 per rendezvous.

“I’m in heaven,” said 20th Domestic Film Group chairman Tom Sherak of the opening.

The romantic drama scored a direct hit with its core audience of older black females, according to exit polls. About 80% of those in attendance were black, while females outnumbered males 70% to 30%, and those 25 or older accounted for 70% of the audience.

But Sherak noted that moviegoers in all demographic groups gave the film extremely high marks. About 97% of young black men surveyed said they would definitely recommend the film to others, while 86% of young white women concurred.

The film narrowly outperformed the first three days of “Waiting To Exhale” (also based on a McMillan bestseller), which opened on Christmas weekend 1995. “Stella” is also on track to top the $11.2 million debut of Fox’s similarly targeted 1997 film “Soul Food.”

On a less promising note, the picture saw an increase of just 6% Saturday over Friday, which doesn’t bode especially well for its long-term prospects.

Crowds shy from ‘Avengers’

Considerably less impressive was the opening of Warner Bros.’ costly actioner “The Avengers,” which grossed $10.7 million in 2,466 spots. That gave the bigscreen adaptation of the campy ’60s British TV show a $4,339 per screen average.

Ticket sales for the Ralph Fiennes-Uma Thurman starrer remained virtually flat Saturday compared to Friday, which indicates the picture will likely fade quickly.

Two other freshman wide releases failed to make the Top 10: Polygram’s “Return to Paradise” grossed a disappointing $2.4 million in 965 theaters, or $2,487 per site, and Miramax’s kidpic sequel, “Air Bud: Golden Receiver,” scored $2.5 million in 1,669 attempts for a $1,503 average.

Hardest hit among Top-10 holdovers were last weekend’s wide entries, Par’s “Snake Eyes” and Miramax’s “Halloween: H20,” which plummeted 47% and 48% respectively.

More ‘Mary’ momentum

Meanwhile, Fox’s “There’s Something About Mary” continues its astonishing run, dropping just 6% to $9.1 million in 2,201 theaters. The Cameron Diaz comedy has grossed $91.6 million and appears poised to finish with more than $130 million.

Among limited newcomers, Fox Searchlight’s “Slums of Beverly Hills” grossed $130,000 in seven locations in New York, L.A. and Orange County. That gives the Tamara Jenkins-helmed pic an auspicious $18,571 average. Miramax’s reissue of the 1966 Catherine Deneuve starrer “The Young Girls of Rochefort” picked up $10,000 at New York’s Film Forum.

Although the weekend marked the first time since early May that no film grossed over $15 million, solid holdover performances helped theatrical business remain vibrant. Total ticket sales were estimated at about $103 million, up a hefty 19% from the comparable weekend a year ago when “Cop Land” led the field at $13.5 million.

Four new wide releases will jump into the fray Friday: New Line’s “Blade,” Sony’s “Dance With Me,” WB’s “Wrongfully Accused” and MTV/Paramount’s “Dead Man on Campus.”

Box office results should begin to cool off over the next few weeks, as students begin returning to school.

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