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NEARBY R-RATED MOVIE RUINS DRIVE-IN FOR FAMILY

My daughter Jennifer went to a drive-in movie with her husband and their two young boys a couple of weeks ago.

"The Lion King" was playing with "The Flintstones" - how could they resist?As she related the experience, I was reminded of my own youth, growing up in the '50s and '60s, when my parents would regularly get my brother and me into our pajamas, herd us into the station wagon and head out for a drive-in movie.

But I was rather sharply knocked out of my nostalgic mood as Jen explained a dilemma they encountered, a uniquely modern one that couldn't have been imagined in my day.

As they enjoyed "The Lion King" through their front windshield an occasional distraction would catch their eyes - the flickering images of another movie on one of the drive-in's other screens. It just happened to be adjacent to the screen they were watching, and from where they were parked, the other movie was in prominent view.

You can probably anticipate the punchline here. The movie that was showing on that other screen was not exactly in the same family vein as "The Lion King." It was the steamy and violent "Color of Night," starring Bruce Willis.

It marked the first R-rated movie experience for my two grandsons. And, according to Jen, it is their last - at least for the next 16 or 17 years!

- LOOKING OVER THE latest box office statistics I discovered that "It Could Happen to You" has become the little film that could.

For those who have not yet seen it, "It Could Happen to You" is the sweet, gentle Frank Capra-style comedy about a nice cop who splits his lottery winnings as a generous tip for a down-and-out waitress. Nicolas Cage and Bridget Fonda star.

The movie is a fairly low-budget, low-key effort, and it opened alongside several huge, high-profile, big-budget Hollywood movies that boasted massive ad campaigns and set new box-office records during their opening weekends.

These days, given Hollywood's blockbuster mentality, if a film needs time to build an audience, it just doesn't have a chance. Any movie that doesn't make a big splash in the first couple of weeks is usually out of here.

But somehow, despite competing against "The Lion King," "Forrest Gump," "Clear and Present Danger," "The Mask," "True Lies," etc., "It Could Happen to You" has managed to hang in there. And in six weeks it has raked in an impressive $33 million.

Now $33 million isn't all that much compared to these other pictures. But it's good for a small film, and proof that word of mouth can keep a little film alive, given half a chance.

If you've passed it over in favor of the biggies, give "It Could Happen to You" a chance before it disappears. You'll be glad you did.

- THE MAGAZINE Entertainment Weekly recently commissioned a Gallup poll, asking moviegoers in the "heartland" of America a number of questions about modern moviegoing habits. Here are a few of the more interesting results:

Who is your favorite actress working today? Julia Roberts came in as No. 1, followed by Meg Ryan, Meryl Streep, Susan Sarandon and Michelle Pfeiffer. Among men alone, however, Pfeiffer moves up to No. 2.

Who is your favorite actor working today? Mel Gibson topped the list, followed by Tom Hanks, Harrison Ford, Kevin Costner, Clint Eastwood and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Women picked Hanks as No. 1 and men chose Ford as No. 1 but Gibson prevailed across the board, the magazine reported.

Other results show that 65 percent of those polled feel Pierce Brosnan is a good choice to play James Bond. Only 10 percent said he was not. Those figures, however, are strictly from those who knew Brosnan's work (primarily on the TV series "Remington Steele"). A startling 43 percent of those polled had no idea who he is.

A huge 78 percent of those polled said they would go more often if movies were less expensive. And 71 percent said they would go to more if the movies were better. In addition, 49 percent said they would go more if there were less "explicit sex" on the screen, and 49 percent also said they would go more if there was less violence. (I'm assuming that means on the screen - not in the auditoriums.)

Popcorn purchases, according to those polled, are about the same as a year ago. The recent health report about the movie snack being high in saturated fat has prompted only 14 percent to stop buying popcorn at the movies.

- QUOTE OF THE WEEK: Pat Morita, starring in "The Next Karate Kid," his fourth film in the series, this time with a female "Karate Kid":

"One day I said, `Maybe I'll do this with a girl.' I have three daughters (in real life). Maybe I can figure out a story where Miyagi meets a girl. Then it won't be a sequel, it'll be a whole new picture."