Last year's box office figures were the bad news. So far, this year's totals are the good news. The movies released during the first two months of 1986 grossed 40 percent more than ones released during the same period last year, even though this year there were two fewer films.

Across the board, totals were better in 1986: Total take to date is almost $70 million, compared with $49.2 million in 1985; the average opening take was $3,800, up from $2,700; 10 pictures opened to more than $3 million in business and six to more than $5 million, compared with six and three last year.

And one other thing: Two independent film studios were publicly criticized for inflating their opening-week box office totals. That's also an increase over 1985. 'Billy Jack' Flap

Several months back, director/writer/actor Tom Laughlin threw a press conference to show off what he says were millions of dollars in cash he planned to use to film "The Return of Billy Jack." Then he went to Canada to shoot his first Billy Jack movie in nearly a decade.

After shooting a fight scene in which a breakaway bottle didn't break, Laughlin wound up in the hospital and the film shut down. However, when he got out of the hospital, filming didn't resume, leading to rumors that the injury was a cover for financial troubles. Then some of the cast and crew said they weren't being paid; Laughlin explained that $140,000 he'd wired to his Toronto offices never arrived.

A month ago, he said the film was about to start up again with a major studio distributor, rumored to be Paramount Pictures. Now most of the cast and crew have been paid, but a lot of Canadians have already gotten new jobs and won't be able to report back to work -- which might be fine, because the film's Canadian offices are closed, and the movie may not even return there for the rest of the shoot.

By the way, Laughlin showed 40 minutes of "The Return of Billy Jack" footage at ShoWest. It was almost all drawn from three fight scenes that have been filmed so far. Laughlin says he plans to shoot 11 more fights. Eastwood's Final Tour?

In his next film, Clint Eastwood plays a Marine officer on his final tour of duty. And there's a possibility that the Warner Bros. movie -- "Ridge," which Eastwood also directs -- may be his final tour of duty as an actor/director, at least for a while. "Ridge" starts shooting in May, a month after the Carmel elections that will decide whether Eastwood gets to be mayor of that northern California resort. About the Oscars

Academy Award ballots have by now reached most voting members, though this year they'll have one fewer award to vote on. There will be no 1986 Oscar for best original song score, because the Academy's music branch decided not enough scores qualified, and the board of governors agreed. That leaves two music categories, best original song and best original score . . .

The real question about this year's Oscars, though, doesn't have anything to do with music. In a year of more uncertainty than most, Hollywood observers are trying to figure out if Steven Spielberg's best director award from the Directors Guild of America will make "The Color Purple" more likely to be chosen Best Picture (because, the reasoning goes, the DGA award shows how strongly much of Hollywood wants to chastise the academy's directors branch for not nominating Spielberg), or if it'll actually hurt that film's chances (because academy members will now feel justice has been served, and they can go ahead and vote for "Prizzi's Honor" or "Out of Africa"). One thing you can count on: The academy won't try to get the suspense out of the way by announcing the Best Picture award first, the way the DGA did with its award to Spielberg.