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B.O. frame leaps 19% over ’96

Distribution execs had plenty to cheer about over the weekend as business overall continued to outstrip the previous year’s by a solid margin.

With total ticket sales of $80 million for the top 60 films, box office was up 19% from the $67 million haul during the comparable frame in 1996. Last year at this time, MGM/UA’s “The Birdcage” and Warner Bros.’ “Executive Decision” topped the charts with three-day grosses of $16 million and $12.1 million, respectively.

This weekend, it was once again 20th Century Fox’s “Star Wars” trilogy reissue that dominated the box office. All three “Star Wars” pics landed in the top 10, collecting an aggregate gross of $23.7 million, or 30% of the domestic market.

Fox’s 1-2 punch

“Return of the Jedi” took the top spot, with a $16.3 million bow. That gave the third installment of the sci-fi trilogy a lifetime cume of $280 million, making it the ninth-highest domestic grosser ever. Just ahead of it on the all-time list is Fox’s “The Empire Strikes Back,” which finished the weekend in fifth place, with $5.1 million and a $282.2 lifetime cume.

Both pics are poised to surpass the $285.7 million cume of Fox’s “Home Alone” — currently the No. 7 all-time domestic grosser — within a week or so. “Jedi” could go on to outgross Fox’s “Independence Day” ($306.1 million) and possibly even Buena Vista’s “The Lion King” ($312.9 million), which would make it the fourth-highest do-mestic grosser of all time.

Meanwhile, the arrival of “Jedi” sent the original “Star Wars” film tumbling 42% to $2.3 million, landing it in ninth place for the weekend. The picture, which has grossed $134 million since its re-release 45 days ago, has now amassed a stratospheric $456.8 million cume — about $57 million ahead of the previous domestic champ: Univer-sal’s “E.T. The Extraterrestrial .”

Mining niches

Meanwhile, back on Earth, a handful of specialized films continues to do solid business. Miramax’s foreign-language Oscar nominee “Kolya” jumped 64% to $275,475 after expanding from 40 to 52 screens, giving it a per-screen average of $5,298. Fox Searchlight’s “Smilla’s Sense of Snow” also expanded well, going up 214% to $300,000 after widening its run from eight to 52 theaters.

Trimark’s “Kama Sutra” demonstrated considerable staying power, slipping just 6% to $268,777 after adding six playdates, bringing its total to 46. Similarly, Sony Pictures Classics’ “Waiting For Guffman” was off just 5% to $166,336 after increasing its theaters from 32 to 35.

Other notable limited releases included CFP’s low-budget comedy “The Daytrippers,” which picked up $43,982 in four East Coast theaters for nearly $11,000 per screen; Strand’s “Boys Life 2,” which grossed $34,385 in four out-ings for an $8,596 average; and Outsider Enterprises’ “The Toilers and the Wayfarers,” which bowed to $19,100 at San Francisco’s Castro Theatre.

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