Hollywood's pretty woman Julia Roberts and Oscar-winning co-star Denzel Washington led the film box-office derby on the weekend before Christmas, as they opened in "The Pelican Brief" and scooped up an estimated $16.6 million nationwide.
The weekend's box-office limelight was shared by the continuing popularity of the Robin Williams comedy, "Mrs. Doubtfire," which came in second with $8.6 million, and by the debut of Steven Spielberg's much-lauded "Schindler's List," which did a sizable $600,000 at only 25 theaters in 18 major cities.
Overall, business was estimated by studio executives to be down about 5% to 10% from the comparable weekend a year ago. Even so, as of Sunday, several continued to have visions that the audience soon will be there.
"You've got to hope for the health of the business that when the shopping is done, and come Christmas Day, people will start going to theaters," said Tom Sherak, 20th Century Fox executive vice president, whose "Mrs. Doubtfire" has been the season's biggest attraction.
The sentiment was shared by Columbia Pictures' president of domestic distribution, Jeff Blake, who noted that the weekend before Christmas is traditionally an off one with the public distracted by pre-holiday activities. Once school vacations begin and the holiday is over, ticket sales pick up sharply. That is his hope for "Geronimo: An American Legend," which ranked sixth for the weekend and has not performed as strongly as expected.
The weekend was the fourth consecutive one during which business was down from a year ago. But if grosses improve sharply in the week after Christmas, 1993 could still set a record.
"The Pelican Brief" saved the weekend from being a box-office washout. Based on the best-selling John Grisham mystery novel, the Warner Bros. release had a built-in audience and wasn't hurt by Roberts' and Washington's appeal.
"Mrs. Doubtfire" continued to play well despite major new competition since it opened on the day before Thanksgiving. Business fell only 15% from the previous weekend, and, after four weeks, its total is $72 million.
Spielberg's "Schindler's List," about a German industrialist who devised a way to save more than 1,100 Jews from Nazi terror, opened Wednesday and is playing on about 45 screens.
Universal Pictures senior vice president of distribution Nikki Rocco said the studio saw the response to "Schindler's List" as a sign that the "public is embracing" the film in cities as diverse as Atlanta, Houston, New York and Los Angeles. Since opening on Wednesday, the film has sold $860,000 worth of tickets, despite its serious subject matter and a 3-hour-and-14-minute length that permits only three showings a day.
Meanwhile, Spielberg's other 1993 movie sold an estimated $500,000 worth of tickets in the Friday-through-Sunday period. After 28 weekends, the total for "Jurassic Park" in the U.S. and Canada is a whopping $336.6 million.
After "Pelican Brief" and "Mrs. Doubtfire," third place was held by Paramount Pictures' "Wayne's World 2" with an estimated $5.9 million. It was a big drop from the first weekend when the movie drew a gross of $13.5 million.
In fourth place was Universal's dog comedy, "Beethoven's 2nd," with $5.5 million in its first weekend.
"Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit" grossed $4.8 million for the weekend, after drawing $7.6 million its first weekend.
"Geronimo" was off considerably too. In sixth place, the film did $2.3 million, down from $4 million its first weekend.
Other estimates: "Perfect World," $1.5 million, "Three Musketeers," $1.1 million, and "Addams Family Values," $1.1 million.
Director Jane Campion's intimate movie "The Piano" continued to compete with the big commercial pictures, doing $1 million for the weekend on only 259 screens. The Miramax Films release has grossed $11.1 million after six weekends.
In limited release, Paramount's offbeat drama "What's Eating Gilbert Grape," with Johnny Depp, Juliette Lewis and Leonardo Di-Caprio, opened to a healthy $70,000 on six screens, while Warner Bros.' "Wrestling Ernest Hemingway, with Robert Duvall, Richard Harris and Shirley MacLaine, debuted to a slow $14,000 on four screens.