‘The Empire’ holds on

But the Mob strikes back as 'Brasco' nabs 2nd spot

Fox’s reissue of “The Empire Strikes Back” led the weekend with an estimated $12.6 million, but TriStar’s “Donnie Brasco” mobsters were shooting it out right behind with $11.2 million. Together, along with a raucous $6.4 million preem of Columbia’s African-American social comedy “Booty Call,” the frame sped along to around $80 million, a decisive 20% ahead of the comparable weekend last year.

Friday also saw the domestic B.O. reach a $1 billion cume, the fastest that level has ever been reached. So, on the eve of ShoWest, the mood in exhibition circles couldn’t be happier.

“We’ve been asking distribution to provide us with stronger product, and they’ve really delivered,” said National Assn. of Theater Owners president Bill Kartozian. “The results speak for themselves. The marketplace is already close to 30% better than it’s ever been.”

The second weekend of “Empire” dipped by 43%, but, in light of its lofty launch, had little difficulty maintaining the top slot. The force was very much in evidence, with the original “Star Wars” racking up $7 million for the frame, ranking third overall.

“Empire” zapped a bracing $5,970 average at 2,111 outposts to bring its reissue cume to $39.6 million, for a $262.3 million aggregate. “Star Wars” skidded about 37% in its fourth weekend for a $2,960 average from 2,367 orbits. Its cume is a towering $447.9 million.

“Donnie Brasco” was an offer an unexpectedly large number of viewers couldn’t refuse. Though it was tracking well leading up to its opening, the true crime drama about an undercover cop was only figuring on about an $8 million gross. The Al Pacino/Johnny Depp starrer led Friday’s biz, but succumbed to the alien army’s matinee mob. Out of the box, it stirred a powerful $7,450 average from 1,503 cells.

Sister company Columbia’s “Booty Call” shook it in fourth with $6.4 million. Definitely on target with its core audience, the comedy sounded an upbeat $5,030 average from 1,272 close encounters. A Wednesday preem, it’s five-day cume is $8 million.

The frame’s major expansion was Miramax’s “Marvin’s Room,” Oscar-nominated for Diane Keaton’s performance. The family drama did a reported $3.5 million, to rank ninth with a so-so $3,030 average from 1,153 chambers. Its cume is $5.6 million. Adding almost 200 playdates, October’s “Lost Highway” had an $830,000 frame, for a weekend average of $4,000 and $1.1 million in 10 days of release.

Oscar boost limited

Oscar’s other leading lights — Miramax’s “The English Patient,” Fine Line’s “Shine” and “Secrets & Lies” from October — were just holding their own as Academy ballots were posted to members. It now seems clear that, at least domestically, none of the trio is likely to see mammoth B.O. boosts until after award night. “Patient” had a $2.2 million frame and 22% decline, while “Shine” ebbed 8% on a $2.1 million gross. “Secrets & Lies,” struggling to secure new dates, hit a high of 280 screens and $520,000, down 15%. Meanwhile, TriStar’s “Jerry Maguire” added $2.6 million to its coffers to overtake “Ransom” for the holiday box office crown with a $135.1 million cume.

In the specialized arena a quartet of new pics debuted, led by Fox Searchlight’s “Smilla’s Sense of Snow” with about $100,000 in eight igloos for a solid $12,500 average. Trimark’s upscale, erotic “Kama Sutra” positioned $80,000 from 10 and, on three reporting screens, Artificial Eye’s 30th anni reissue of the classic French gangster pic “Le Samourai” grossed $20,000. Goldwyn’s “Hard Eight” thriller was the weak sister of the bunch, with $57,000 in 28 casinos.

Columbia/Castle Rock’s “Absolute Power” diminished 37% to rank fifth with $5.7 million. Uncorrupted in 2,568 theaters, the political thriller emerged with a $2,220 average. It’s grossed $36.8 million to date.

The second division

Universal’s “Dante’s Peak” took sixth position with $5.2 million. Slowing by 27%, it oozed to a $1,890 average at 2,751 craters for a cume of $52.2 million.

Warner Bros.’ “Vegas Vacation” slotted seventh on a $4.5 million gross. The fourth in the comedy series had a $2,170 average from 2,070 gaming tables. Off 31% for the weekend, its jackpot has mounted to $27.2 million.

Columbia’s romantic comedy “Fools Rush In” sped to $3.7 million for the eighth spot. Slow but sure, the film eroded by 33% for a $2,170 average at 1,701 engagements. It has a cume of $21.5 million.

Completing the top 10 was Warner Bros.’ historic tale of racial strife, “Rosewood,” with $2.8 million. Surprisingly steadfast, it abated a modest 11% for a $2,830 average from 991 playdates. Its 10-day cume is $7.1 million.

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