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It's a Big Sigh of Relief for 'Exhale' : Box office: Whitney Houston film opens strongly and could take in $11 million or more for the four-day weekend. 'Nixon' and 'Cutthroat Island' perform poorly.

December 25, 1995|ELAINE DUTKA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"Waiting to Exhale," the story of four African American women searching for Mr. Right, is a surprise contender for the top spot in the box-office competition over the four-day holiday weekend. Estimated projections show the 20th Century Fox film grossing between $11 million and $14 million, and running neck-and-neck with Disney's computer-animated "Toy Story"--a movie tailor-made for the Christmas season that is generating heavy repeat business.

The picture was considerably bleaker for two high-profile films--Disney's "Nixon" and MGM's pirate adventure "Cutthroat Island," both of which have garnered considerable pre-release publicity. With a three-hour running time and playing on only 514 screens (less than a third of the average wide release), Oliver Stone's controversial portrait of the 37th president took in only $2.2 million for a 12th-place finish. MGM's megabudget "Cutthroat Island," starring Geena Davis, grossed an estimated $2.1 million to finish No. 13.

Tom Sherak, senior executive vice president of Fox, admitted that the impressive showing by "Waiting to Exhale," starring Whitney Houston and Angela Bassett, took the studio by surprise.

" 'Waiting to Exhale' was helped by critics who gave it credibility, as well as by a sense of urgency in the African American audience," he surmised. "No film like this has been done before. The audience, so far, has been 70% female and 60% African American. If the film manages to cross over--always the question--the numbers will be huge."

"Toy Story," with an estimated $12.3-million four-day gross and $116 million in five weeks of release, easily surpassed two new family films--Disney's own "Tom and Huck" and Universal's animated adventure "Balto," which took in a mere $3.6 million and $2 million, respectively. The adventures of Woody and Buzz Light-year also edged out TriStar's "Jumanji," starring Robin Williams, which finished third with a strong $11 million, padding its 11-day total to $28 million.

Given the glut of product, says Jeff Blake, president of Sony Pictures Releasing, he feels pretty good about his studios' showing: "Jumanji" finished in the top three; Rob Reiner's "American President," with $2.3 million and an 11th-place finish, is holding its own after a lackluster start; and, in the wake of six Golden Globe nominations, "Sense and Sensibility" pulled in $900,000 on just 70 screens, giving Blake even higher hopes.

"Every so often, a film in limited release, such as 'Philadelphia' and 'Schindler's List,' can break out from the holidays and become a commercial mainstream movie," he said. "We're in the best position for that this year. We plan to expand ["Sense and Sensibility"] aggressively starting Jan. 5."

Overall, notes Exhibitor Relations president John Krier, this weekend's box-office receipts were comparable to the same weekend in 1994. If moviegoing continues at its current rate, 1995 has a good chance of breaking last year's record $5.4-billion total. Though more people are expected to head to the theaters this week, none of the new entries--with the exception of "Exhale" and Warner's "Grumpier Old Men"--which took in $7.5 million for a fourth-place finish--opened well.

"Contrary to the conventional wisdom, Christmas weekend is not a big time for movies," Krier explains. "Theaters are virtually closed on Christmas Eve in many areas and Christmas Day is a family affair. Some people head out for the movies that night but, because Tuesday is a workday, studio estimates may be a bit high."

Disney's "Father of the Bride Part II" ($7.4 million), Warner Bros.' thriller "Heat" ($7 million) and Paramount's romantic comedy "Sabrina" ($6.7 million) finished in the fifth through seventh spots--a showing industry observers consider decent, if unexceptional.

Barry London, vice chairman of Paramount's motion picture group, says films with female appeal often start slow, particularly at holiday time when women often bear the brunt of the load.

"Historically, women don't run out to the movies as fast--and Christmas shopping and dinner are generally their domain," he says. " 'Working Girl' started out with $4 million in its first weekend and went on to do good business. So did 'Little Women.' We've always thought that 'Sabrina' had great playability and used the past 10 days to generate good word of mouth."

Universal's Jean-Claude Van Damme thriller "Sudden Death" took in upward of $5.5 million--less than the actor's 1993 "Timecop," but as much as last year's "Streetfighter." That qualified it for an eighth-place finish. Ending up in 10th place was Columbia's Mel Brooks comedy "Dracula: Dead and Loving It," which took in $3 million in its first weekend out.

MGM's "Leaving Las Vegas," which last week received four major Golden Globe nominations, grossed $200,000 on 36 screens and has surpassed the $2-million mark.

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