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‘Empire’ Makes Strategic Strike

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

“The Empire Strikes Back” struck back, all right: The second episode in George Lucas’ special-edition “Star Wars” trilogy reissue took first place in the weekend box-office race--and, with an estimated $22.35 million, became the biggest February opener of all time.

Still, the weekend total for the 16-year-old sci-fi adventure was 36% shy of the $35 million taken in by the first “Star Wars” reissue on its opening weekend three weeks ago.

The reason is two-fold: One, results overall were down from the previous weekend--a four-day holiday bonanza--by about 35%. Two, some audiences are still seeing “Star Wars"--a film that changed the sci-fi genre and that many critics hailed as better than “Empire.”

However, “Star Wars"--which took in about $11 million for second place--and “Empire” together helped boost the weekend box office by 26% over the same weekend in ’96--a boost that fuels 20th Century Fox’s plan to hustle 6,000 theaters into playing all three episodes of the trilogy once “Return of the Jedi,” the final chapter, opens March 7.

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Actually, there’s a good chance that date will be bumped to March 14, giving “Empire” a chance to catch up with “Star Wars” before “Jedi” hits the theaters. (To date, the reissued “Star Wars” and “Empire” together have accumulated $115.95 million; “Star Wars” has grossed $438.7 million in combined domestic ticket sales from 1976 and 1997, and “Empire” has grossed a cumulative $245 million domestically.)

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A mother lode of 6,000 theaters for three old films would eat up space not only for new and current films, but also for Oscar contenders vying to re-release their pictures so academy voters can see them one more time before voting next month.

While some competitors worried privately that exhibitors could play to Fox’s demand and give them short shrift, all conceded the “Star Wars” juggernaut has helped the industry overall in luring audiences.

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Barry Reardon, head of Warners’ distribution, went so far as to say that if Fox “can get those three films playing in 6,000 theaters that’s terrific, because it expands the business. It gets people in the movie-going mood,” and that trickles down “to all the rest of the pictures.”

“At the start of this quarter, exhibitors were pessimistic. But the re-release of these pictures, ‘Star Wars’ in particular, has made their quarter,” said John Krier, head of the Exhibitor Relations box-office tracking firm. “By the quarter’s end [March 31], it will probably be their biggest ever, especially when you think they still have [Jim Carrey’s] ‘Liar, Liar’ and [Howard Stern’s] ‘Private Parts’ to come. Those should be huge. No one anticipated this.”

If “Jedi” opens March 7, it will go head to head with Paramount’s “Private Parts” in a test of whether the trilogy can knock an opener out of theater space. At this point, Paramount’s head of distribution Wayne Lewellen says he’s not worried.

“Actually, we’ve got more theaters than the 2,000 I had planned for opening weekend,” he says. “We got 2,200 and that will probably equate to 2,400 screens. I have nothing to complain about yet.”

But the game is still early. Lewellen, like other studio distribution executives, knows exhibitors must respond to demands of the marketplace. If audiences aren’t paying to see new films but are heading for theaters playing Lucas’ trilogy, the chances are that other theaters will act accordingly.

“As long as the ‘Star Wars’ trilogy continues to issue the phenomenal grosses it has been reflecting,” said one AMC theater executive, “movie theaters will always find play time for hit pictures. We’ll take all we can get.”

Some Fox rivals will be sure to remind exhibitors that they will want their fair share of prints of big upcoming summer releases. But it is against the law for studios to muscle exhibitors by hinging access to one picture on play dates for another.

“Exhibitors can decide what movies they want to play in their houses,” says Jeff Blake, head of Sony’s distribution for Columbia and TriStar releases. “But I don’t think the number of theaters playing the trilogy will truly affect the opening of new pictures. Exhibitors know the public wants to see new movies.

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“What it does affect is the ability of older films to stay in theaters and it hampers the ability of Oscar contenders to get back into the marketplace.”

Gramercy’s “Fargo,” a best picture and best actress Oscar contender, is a prime example. But Gramercy chief Russell Schwartz says he already has shipped videos to academy voters, and notes that the film is playing a few theaters in New York and Los Angeles where most academy voters live.

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Columbia’s “Absolute Power,” in its second week, fell 46% to third place behind “Empire” and “Star Wars” with an estimated box-office take of $9 million this weekend.

While “Absolute Power” remained in 2,568 theaters, Sony lost some theaters for its hit Oscar contender “Jerry Maguire,” which fell 40% to ninth place for the weekend, bringing in about $3.1 million. In 11 weeks, the film has grossed about $131.7 million.

Sony did add theaters for a 2-week-old release, “Fool’s Rush In,” even though it fell to sixth place with about $5.6 million.

The only studio release to open over the weekend was Warner Bros.’ “Rosewood.” John Singleton’s drama was in limited release at 991 theaters nationwide. It grossed an estimated $3.2 million to land in eighth place. Warner’s 2-week-old “Las Vegas Vacation” managed to hold fifth with about $6.6 million, though it was off 41%.

“Dante’s Peak” was in fourth place with an estimated $7 million; “That Darn Cat” was in seventh with about $3.6 million; and “The English Patient” was in 10th with about $2.8 million. Final results are to be released today.

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