Plenty of Gravy for Hollywood : Movies: 'Back to the Future, Part II' paces a record-setting Thanksgiving weekend at the box office. Family fare helps account for more than $100 million in ticket sales.

With a time-traveling DeLorean leading the way, Hollywood enjoyed its best Thanksgiving box-office business ever, taking in more than $100 million during the four-day holiday that began Wednesday.

"Back to the Future, Part II," the sequel to the 1985 time-warp comedy starring Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd, grossed $43 million with 1,865 prints in theaters throughout the United States, topping the previous record of $31.7 million set by "Rocky IV" over Thanksgiving weekend four years ago.

Industry analysts attribute the holiday frenzy at American theaters to family business. Seven of the 10 box-office leaders are films targeted to either children or families and they accounted for about three-quarters of all the business done over the weekend.

Hollywood's Magnificent Seven, in order of holiday performance, were: "Back to the Future, Part II" ($43 million); "Look Who's Talking" ($10.4 million); "The Little Mermaid" ($10 million); "All Dogs Go to Heaven" ($5.9 million); "Prancer" ($4.6 million); "Dad" ($3.9 million); and "The Bear" ($3 million).

Eddie Murphy's R-rated and critically savaged "Harlem Nights," which opened 10 days ago, was a distant second to "Back to the Future II" with $16.1 million. The other two films in the top 10 were "Steel Magnolias," which expanded its opening to 720 theaters and finished fifth with $9 million, and Woody Allen's "Crimes and Misdemeanors," No. 10 on the list with an estimated five-day take of $2 million.

The opening of "Back to the Future II" overwhelmed the rest of the weekend news. The movie, in which Fox's Marty McFly and Lloyd's Doc Brown calendar-hop between 1955 and 2,015, did more than twice the business of last year's stuffed turkey, "Scrooge." Before the box office cools down, the film seems certain to become one of the highest grossing sequels ever. The second sequel, "Back to the Future Part III," is already set for release next summer.

At the Avco Cinema in Westwood, fans began camping out in sleeping bags the Sunday before to catch the initial screening of "Future II" at 12:01 a.m.

"We haven't stopped selling tickets since Wednesday," Avco manager Randy DuVall said. The theater expects to show the film 10 times a day, seven days a week for the next few weeks, he said.

"Right now, family pictures are doing the business," Exhibitor Relations president John Krier said. "The films are attracting the young ones and the old ones. The kids have 'Back to the Future' and 'The Little Mermaid,' while the adults have 'Steel Magnolias' and 'Dad.' "

Cinemascore, a tracking service that polls film audiences as they leave theaters, reported that 60% of the opening-night audience for "Back to the Future II" was under 25, and that 69% of the audience was male. On a scale from A to F, audience members overall gave the film an A-, compared to the straight A received by its predecessor.

"The two major demographics studios worry about are males under 25 and females over 25," Cinemascore president Ed Mintz said. "They rarely like the same thing, but they are the key audiences. The young males offer repeat business, and the older females are the ones who decide which movie a couple goes to see. You're seeing movies out there that are speaking strongly to both of them."

Cinemascore found that 67% of the opening-night audience for "Steel Magnolias" was female, and 66% was over 25. Mintz called "Steel Magnolias"--which received an overall grade of A by females and A- by males--an "older female hit."

Explaining "Harlem Night's" 33% fall in the box office following a record opening last weekend, Mintz said that the film faces a crossover problem. Unlike most Murphy movies, which appeal mostly to young audiences, exit polls revealed that 62% of the audience was over 25. In comparison, 62% of the audience was under 25 for "Beverly Hills Cop" and 66% under 25 for "Coming to America."

"Murphy's movie has some factors working against it," Mintz said. "This is a complete change for an Eddie Murphy movie. It stars Red Foxx and Della Reese. And it's a period piece. That's a problem. The film seems to be appealing to older, black audiences. Does (Murphy) have the strength in that situation to keep drawing crowds after two weeks of release? We'll have to wait and see."

Despite a drop in independent and studio film releases, Entertainment Data Inc., reports that few weekends this year have earned less money at the box office than comparable weekends last year. Explanations for the increased box-office numbers range from higher ticket prices to more theater screens across the nation to the state-of-the-art theaters now screening first-run films.

But the prevailing opinion seems to be that "Hollywood is making more pictures that people want to see," said Philip Garfinkle, vice president of Entertainment Data. "They are not necessarily better pictures, but there seems to be a broader number of films that people will pay the money to go to see."

One example is "Look Who's Talking," the fall comedy starring John Travolta, Kirstie Alley and a talking baby (with Bruce Willis' voice). In a traditionally slow fall market, the film opened to surprisingly record numbers and held strong, topping $11 million in each of its first five weekends in release.

"Films are offering more entertainment," Krier said. "The critics certainly evaluate films differently than the public. I don't think there were more than one or two national critics who liked 'Look Who's Talking.' But word of mouth always prevails. The public casts its vote in the box office."

As Christmas approaches, many of the studio releases will be moving away from family fare and toward more dramatic films designed to capture the attention of Oscar voters.

Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner will co-star in the black comedy "War of the Roses." The female odd couple of Meryl Streep and Roseanne Barr team up in "She-Devil." In "Family Business," Sean Connery, Dustin Hoffman and Mathew Broderick are three generations of a thieving family.

In other films, Richard Dreyfuss and Holly Hunter lead the way in director Steven Spielberg's "Always." Tom Cruise is disabled Vietnam veteran Ron Kovic in "Born on the Fourth of July."

"It's really hard to say what's going to do the business heading into Christmas," Garfinkle said. "You open up a Pandora's box trying to guess. I think the records will keep falling. Last year was a tremendous year, then this year came and knocked it out. Who's to say next year won't be even better?"

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