'Feet' by a beak over Bond

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It looks as if the animated penguins beat out James Bond for first place at the North American boxoffice on the weekend before Thanksgiving. But with the two movies so close, this afternoon's final numbers could be the true determinant of who wins the frame.

As it stood Sunday, estimates reported by each of the studios indicated that Warner Bros. Pictures' "Happy Feet" is the winner by a $1.7 million margin. The PG-rated CG-animated film earned an estimated $42.3 million compared with Sony Pictures' "Casino Royale," a Columbia Pictures/ MGM co-production, which grossed $40.6 million.

The other new wide release, Universal Pictures' "Let's Go to Prison," bowed at a dismal $2.1 million, good for 12th place overall.

Even with two $40 million-plus openers, the weekend still was down a staggering 22.3% compared with last year at this time, when Warners' juggernaut "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire" bowed to $102 million and 20th Century Fox's "Walk the Line" opened to $22.3 million.

Today's numbers will be telling, considering that "Casino" is handicapped by a 140-minute run time, while "Happy Feet's" family-friendly themes will attract a lot of kid-priced tickets. Nonetheless, the two well-reviewed films each scored in the range expected.

For Warners, "Happy Feet" marked the company's largest bow for an animated movie. It also was the largest-opening animated Imax movie, pulling in an estimated $2.4 million on 79 screens, beating out the $2.1 million 3-D bow of "The Polar Express." Overall, the penguin movie from director George Miller ("Babe"), a Village Roadshow co-production, grossed a solid per-theater average of an estimated $11,125.

"We're in great shape," Warners distribution president Dan Fellman said. "Historically, family movies are outstanding over the holiday, so we are well positioned now. We think we'll play well through Christmas and the end of the year."

Armed with strong reviews and a debonair new Bond in British actor Daniel Craig, "Casino" definitely caught fire with audiences. Although it didn't open to the record-breaking $47 million of the last Bond outing, 2002's "Die Another Day," the PG-13 "Casino" — featuring Eva Green as the new Bond girl — certainly could be deemed a success.

"Considering that Pierce (Brosnan) began opening 'Bond' in the $20 million range and worked his way up to $40 million, the strength of Craig's terrific new Bond is evident," Sony distribution president Rory Bruer said. "We couldn't be happier with the Bond (producers) Michael Wilson and Barbara Broccoli chose in Craig. People who are not only die-hard Bond fans are embracing him, and we think this film will create more Bond fans."

Bowing in 3,434 theaters, "Casino" rang up a per-theater average of $11,823, slightly higher than "Happy Feet's" total. "Casino" drew in 55% males, and 57% of the audience was 25 and older.

Universal, which acquired the behind-bars comedy "Prison" from Marc Abraham's Strike Entertainment, said its bow was in the expected range. The film, which targeted young males, was supported with a short, intense marketing campaign, with no newspaper buys but rather specialized television ads and Internet plays, the company said. "Prison" surely was hurt by "Casino," which caught the attention of moviegoing males. The R-rated film, starring Will Arnett and Dax Shepard, generated a $1,410 per-screen average.

"Clearly, we took a shot. Our thinking was an outrageous comedy might work at this time. We were right, but it was 'Borat,' " said Nikki Rocco, Universal president of distribution. "But we were happy to take this kind of risk. It's not financially hurtful at all to us, so it's not a major loss."

The frame's holdovers took quite a tumble, with most films in the top 10 dropping an average of 50%.

Fox's "Borat," the boxoffice leader the past two weekends, dropped 49% to an estimated $14.4 million, finishing in third place overall. The R-rated comedy, which cost $18 million to make, has earned an estimated $91 million after three weekends in release.

Sony's "Stranger Than Fiction" was off 51%, taking the sixth spot. The Will Ferrell starrer grossed an additional $6.6 million, moving its 10-day cume to $22.9 million.

As expected, "Happy Feet" clearly stole momentum from the two family holdovers in the market. Buena Vista Pictures' "The Santa Clause 3: The Escape Clause" fell 51% to an estimated $8.2 million, putting it in fourth place. Its three-week total is $51.6 million. In fifth place, Paramount Pictures' "Flushed Away" was off 50% in its third weekend. The PG animated film, from DreamWorks Animation and Aardman Animations, grossed an estimated $6.8 million for a three-week total of $48.6 million.

In seventh place, Paramount Vantage's "Babel," the R-rated drama from director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, fell 49% for the frame, grossing an estimated $2.9 million in its second weekend in wide release. The total cume for the film, which stars Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett, stands at $12 million.

The limited-release market was crowded this frame. Fox Searchlight bombed with the Richard Linklater film "Fast Food Nation." The fictionalized account of the best-selling book by Eric Schlosser opened in 321 theaters, earning $390,000. The R-rated drama starring Greg Kinnear and Bruce Willis generated a weak per-screen average of $1,215.

There was better news for Warner Independent Pictures' release of "For Your Consideration." The latest improv-heavy comedy from Christopher Guest bowed at 23 theaters in 12 markets and earned $394,000, generating a strong per-screen average of $17,130. The film, which centers on Hollywood and the race for Oscar glory, will expand Wednesday to 600 runs.

MGM opened the Weinstein Co.'s "Bobby" on two screens for a three-day estimate of $67,000; the R-rated political drama from director Emilio Estevez generated a per-screen average of $33,500. The film — with a star-studded cast that includes Anthony Hopkins, Lindsay Lohan, William H. Macy, Demi Moore, Sharon Stone and Elijah Wood — will expand wide this weekend.

"We are off to a great start," the Weinstein Co.'s Harvey Weinstein said. "The exit polls are tremendous. 'Bobby' seems to have struck a chord with the public."

Among the limited-release holdovers, Sony Pictures Classics earned another $144,571 for its third weekend with Pedro Almodovar's "Volver." The Penelope Cruz starrer has grossed $682,515.

MGM's "Harsh Times" has officially sunk. From Bauer Martinez, the film from writer-director David Ayer was off a steep 76%, grossing $475,000 for the frame. Screening in 956 theaters, the film's per-theater average totaled $497. Its cume stands at $3.1 million.

MGM's second weekend of Sidney Kimmel Entertainment's "Copying Beethoven" was a bit stronger. The film grossed $55,000 on 29 screens, off 22%, for a per-screen average of $1,897. Its 10-day cume is $153,454.

New Line Cinema added eight screens to its R-rated drama "Little Children," from writer-director Todd Field. The film, playing on 37 screens, grossed $161,000 for a per-screen average of $4,351. The well-reviewed but struggling indie has earned $1.5 million in seven weeks of release.

For the week ending Nov. 16, total grosses amounted to $165.1 million, up about 6% from the $155.9 million collected during the comparable week a year ago. Year-to-date grosses stand at $7.95 billion, up nearly 7% from last year's $7.44 billion. Admissions are up 4%.
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