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‘Empire’ still on top; ‘Brasco’ with a bullet

The force continued to grip the box office as Fox’s reissues of “The Empire Strikes Back” and “Star Wars” emerged as the first- and third-place pics in the marketplace, with respective grosses of $13.1 million and $6.8 million.

Domestic screens — normally playing programmers and Oscar fare this time of year — were awash with high-concept popular entertainment. In addition to the vintage adventures, one could choose a star-driven thriller (“Absolute Power”), a special effects extravaganza (“Dante’s Peak”) or a comedy sequel (“Vegas Vacation”). There’s also Disney family fare and comedies with both Hispanic and African American slants.

So, what happened to all those adult movies?

It’s not that they’ve disappeared, they’ve just wound up having a lower profile. The major Oscar contenders such as “Shine” and “The English Patient” have crossed over well into mainstream dates. But even specialized fare that’s performing with strong B.O. numbers can’t find space in the country’s multi- and megaplexes, currently teeming with fierce commercial creatures.

Adult film

However, there’s unquestionably a hunger for more mature fare and that was ably demonstrated by the potent debut of TriStar’s “Donnie Brasco.” The true crime meller swept into the second spot with $11.7 million and per-theater averages of $7,750.

“It’s much more of a crap shoot when you make a serious picture,” says “Brasco” producer Mark Johnson. “Stars help but they don’t guarantee you’ll get a crowd. Reviews also help and, again, they’re not an insurance policy. You have such a small amount of time to get people’s attention today. The belief that good pictures will always find an audience just isn’t true.”

In fact, it probably was never true. Such classics as “Bringing Up Baby” and “Sunset Boulevard” were flops on release. Only time has accorded them a hallowed status, disconnected from their long-forgotten B.O.

Box office aid

While there’s no denying “Brasco’s” many qualities, it’s also true that the film was boosted by unforeseen factors: Namely, almost no grown-up fare on screens and therefore, minimal competition.

The frame’s debut pics in limited release fared reasonably well in their niche. Fox Searchlight’s “Smilla’s Sense of Snow” grossed $107,000 from eight screens ($13,400 average) and Trimark’s provocative “Kama Sutra” rang up $83,5000 from 10 playdates.

“Success is a matter of proportion,” Trimark senior VP Ray Price observed. ” ‘Kama Sutra’ opened very strong, particularly in New York playing one screen. As a result, we’ll expand very quickly to between 40 and 50 theaters and most of the top 25 markets. It’s a film that can work in the art market and doesn’t have to cross over to show a profit. Obviously, our hope is to get it out as wide as possible but I don’t think George Lucas is worrying a lot about us.”

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