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An ever-earlier Christmas film release continues to cannibalize late-winter film box office. January’s national gross fell 6% to $ 331 million from $ 352.2 million a year ago. “Aladdin” and “A Few Good Men” were the top January pix. More major releases must come right after Jan. 1 in order to end the stagnation.

The exclusive Daily Variety B.O. reporting survey puts January ticket sales off 9% to 64.5 million from 70.9 million a year ago.

The seasonally adjusted Variety Film B.O. Index for January was 92.7 vs. 98.9 a year back. the Index base was 100.0 in 1990, so last month’s B.O. level was 92 .7% of the average month’s performance in the base year.

Other leading films in January was “Scent of a Woman,””Alive,””The Bodyguard, “”Nowhere to Run,””Forever Young,””Home Alone 2: Lost in New York,””Body of Evidence” and “Used People.”

The cannibalizing of January-February B.O. is caused by the earlier release of year-end holiday season pix. In previous eras, major releases came in mid-December, which crowded and bunched the marketplace, but also meant that Christmas hits rolled on into the opening months of the new year.

The backward reach of holiday openings has had the positive effect of accelerating revenues from filmgoers who have up to seven weeks (instead of three) to sample the product. However, the downside is that the hits have consumed more of their audiences by the time of the post-holiday business downturn.

To put this phenomenon into numbers, an analysis was done over an 11-week time base, from mid-November through the end of January for the last five holiday seasons, and computing the percentages of B.O. generated during the holiday season and the ensuing January period.

Over the 1988-89 span, 66% of the gross came in the holiday period, with 34% in the following January. The holiday season share has steadily grown, reaching 74% in the just-ended season, and the January share has shrunk to 26%.

One solution to the problem of the shrinking January pie is earlier release of major films immediately after the New Year’s holiday. Some distributors — most recently Universal and Buena Vista — seem aware of the required new strategy.

Letting the dust from big holiday releases settle in January won’t work anymore, for the simple reason that there isn’t much dust left from films that have milked the near-maximum from the holiday period.