B.O. sting: 'Bee' king of weekend

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Ho, ho, huh?

Warner Bros.' seasonal comedy "Fred Claus," starring Vince Vaughn as Santa's naughty sibling, couldn't sleigh north of a couple nice holdovers during the weekend and settled for a third-place bow with an estimated $19.2 million.

Instead, DreamWorks/Paramount's "Bee Movie," using a tiny 32% drop from opening grosses, flew to the top of the domestic boxoffice in a $26 million sting. Universal/Imagine's "American Gangster," which outgunned "Bee" for the top spot the previous weekend, fell just 44% to score $24.3 million and finish second overall.

The 10-day cume is $72.2 million for "Bee," an animated comedy with Jerry Seinfeld voicing the lead, uh, bee, and $80.7 million for "Gangster," a Denzel Washington-Russell Crowe crime drama directed by Ridley Scott.

Meanwhile, perhaps the most complicated disappointment in a mix of limp openers this busy Veterans Day weekend was turned in by yet another underperforming Middle Eastern drama. United Artists' slate-christening "Lions for Lambs" — helmed by Robert Redford and starring Redford, Tom Cruise and Meryl Streep —bowed with just $6.7 million in fourth place.

With its all-star cast and a $35 million budget, "Lions" lies somewhere between a typical commercial release and an art film, so it never was in the running for weekend laurels. But with Cruise and producing partner Paula Wagner now running UA at the Harry Sloan-era MGM, execs might have hoped for a splashier bow for their first title. UA insiders had been hoping for at least $10 million in opening grosses to keep film finances on track.

"Lions" skewed wildly older, with two-thirds of patrons over 35 and audiences 55% female.

"Adult audiences don't necessarily come out the first weekend, and we've positioned it to play right through the Thanksgiving holiday," MGM distribution president Clark Woods said.

There's also a WGA strike angle to the "Lions" disappointment, as cast promos were curtailed after late-night talk shows went into reruns as a result of the writers' walkout. Some studios expect to compensate in such situations by additional spending on TV spots, but that was a luxury "Lions" could ill afford because of budgetary and time constraints.

Elsewhere during the weekend, Summit's horror thriller "P2" rung up just $2.2 million to open in eighth place. Starring Rachel Nichols ("Resurrecting the Champ"), "P2" also was a slate opener, as former Paramount and Warners executive Rob Friedman cranks up production and distribution operations at Summit Entertainment.

Another sophomore film, New Line's John Cusack starrer "Martian Child," grossed $1.8 million in 10th place to move its cume to $6 million.

The frame also featured a notable limited bow for Miramax's Coen brothers drama "No Country for Old Men," which grossed $1.2 million from just 28 locations for a stunning per-theater average of $42,912. "No Country," which stars Tommy Lee Jones and Javier Bardem, will hit additional markets Friday before expanding wide after Thanksgiving.

Sony unspooled its first-ever Hindi-language film, "Saawariya," in 85 U.S. locations and grossed $600,000, or a solid $7,059 per site.

ThinkFilm opened the documentary "War/Dance" with two runs in New York and one in Los Angeles, grossing $17,070, an acceptable $5,690 per venue, before an expansion Friday into the Washington area.

Industrywide, the weekend was off 13% from the same frame a year ago with $110 million million in total grosses, according to data tracker Nielsen EDI. Year to date, the boxoffice remains 6% ahead of the same period with $8.02 billion.

The latest session was bolstered by stronger than usual Sunday estimates thanks to Veterans Day in the U.S. and Canada's Remembrance Day. The holidays will mean a day off from work for many today, and 43% of schoolkids are free from classes.

In the art house market, the Sidney Lumet-directed drama "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead" from ThinkFilm added 79 theaters for a total of 122 and grossed $689,930, a solid $5,655 per venue, with a $1.3 million cume. "Devil" is expected to detail a total 170 runs starting Friday.

Warners' George Clooney starrer "Michael Clayton" shed 957 theaters to a total of 1,150 and grossed $1.7 million, or a thin $1,443 per venue, with a $35.6 million cume. "Clayton" is expected to cut additional runs Friday, though it does figure among a handful of prestige titles aiming for awards-season bounce.

Miramax's Ben Affleck-directed "Gone Baby Gone" also began winding down during the weekend, shedding 660 runs for a total of 957 and grossing $1.5 million, a weak $1,578 per engagement, with a $17.1 million cume.

Focus Features' Ang Lee-helmed "Lust, Caution" held steady in 111 locations for $235,453, or $2,121 per venue, with a $3.7 million cume.

DreamWorks marketing maven Anne Globe said the surprise No. 1 finish for "Bee" means its buzz is building.

"(It) is resonating beautifully with our core family audience and also playing to a broad group of moviegoers," she said.

"Claus," which features Paul Giamatti as St. Nick, underperformed most expectations. But studio execs insisted that playability prospects for the film, directed by David Dobkin ("Wedding Crashers"), remain high.

"We've set up the picture well going into the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays," Warners executive vp Jeff Goldstein said. "A lot of times these Christmas movies are a marathon and not a sprint."

Still, the PG film appeared challenged by uncertainty over its prospective audience headed into the weekend as marketing veered from spots aimed at adult Vaughn fans and those targeting prospective family patrons.

As it turned out, 60% of its business came from family patrons, with 52% 25 and older.

Summit execs claimed the weak "P2" bow won't hurt too much.

"We always had modest expectations for the film, and the studio spent accordingly on (prints and advertising)," Summit distribution president Richard Fay said.

This weekend will see a bevy of wide openers join the competitive fray in the busy buildup to the following Thanksgiving frame. Those include Fox's family fantasy "Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium," with Dustin Hoffman and Natalie Portman; Paramount's animated feature "Beowulf"; Paramount Vantage's Nicole Kidman starrer "Margot at the Wedding"; and New Line's literary adaptation "Love in the Time of Cholera."
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