Foursome win some at box office

When the clock ran out on the Super Bowl B.O. weekend, studio- reported grosses showed a bizarre virtual tie among the top four films, with less than $50,000 separating the first and fourth place entries.

Sony’s “Jerry Maguire,” New Line’s “In Love and War,” Sony’s “Beverly Hills Ninja” and Buena Vista’s “Metro” all clocked in at roughly $5.5 million, according to their respective distributors. BV’s “Evita” landed a hair behind in fifth, at just over $5.4 million.

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” Mark Christianson, distribution executive for DreamWorks, said of the four-way deadlock. “It’s unprecedented.”

But Phil Barlow, president of Buena Vista Distribution, expressed skepticism about the purely coincidental nature of the results.

“I still question the correctness of the grosses that are reported by Sony and New Line,” said Barlow, who also was sharply critical of his competitors’ weekend estimates in comments Sunday.

Barlow said his doubts were based on his interpretation of reports by Entertainment Data Inc. EDI each day polls the majority of the nation’s theaters and furnishes the results to all the major studios. Distribution execs use the proprietary data to extrapolate the total grosses for each film.

“I can’t speak for Sony, but our reported grosses are accurate numbers,” said Al Shapiro, New Line senior exec VP and general sales manager. “We have never screwed around in the past and we don’t intend to start now.”

Sony execs chose not to comment.

But the loud bickering among studio execs could not drown out certain indisputable facts:

* Super Bowl weekend continues to be a poor box office period. Total ticket sales for the top 60 films came to about $65.5 million, just 2% ahead of the comparable frame a year ago and 24% off from the Friday-Sunday portion of last week’s holiday frame.

* Based on their current trajectory, neither “Metro” nor “Beverly Hills Ninja” appears likely to be a significant factor in the marketplace next weekend when “Star Wars” rockets onto the scene.

* “In Love and War’s” disappointing debut does not bode well for the film’s the long-term health. Last year at this time, New Line’s “Bed of Roses” bowed to $6.1 million, eventually topping out at $19.7 million.

* “Evita” continues to find its audience. Not surprisingly, the musical biopic was the top earner Sunday, it’s core audience of upscale women predictably least affected by Super Bowl mania.

* “Jerry Maguire” seems to have found new life after Tom Cruise’s Golden Globe performance and the possibility that an Oscar nomination could be in the offing.

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