'Messengers' delivers No. 1 debut

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The Hollywood studios have figured out how to counterprogram against the behemoth weekend television event that is Super Bowl Sunday. Sony Pictures and Universal Pictures both scored this frame at the North American boxoffice with two releases aimed specifically at audiences not typically interested in the big game. Sony's horror flick "The Messengers," from its Screen Gems unit, bowed in first place to an estimated $14.5 million, while Universal's romantic comedy "Because I Said So," from Gold Circle Films, grossed an estimated $13 million.

The second-week holdovers, however, suffered from a extremely weak Sunday at the movies.

20th Century Fox's "Epic Movie" which was No. 1 last frame, fell a steep 56% to an estimated $8.2 million. Universal's "Smokin' Aces," which had been the No. 1 film throughout the week, fell a severe 57% to $6.3 million. Both suffered from the strength of "Messengers," coupled with the bleak Sunday.

Meanwhile, Sony's romantic comedy "Catch and Release" plummeted even farther, dropping 65% in its sophomore session to an estimated $2.7 million, which knocked it down to 11th place. MGM's release of Lakeshore's "Blood and Chocolate" dropped an extreme 71% to an estimated $611,000. Officially dead in the water after 10 days in release, "Blood," starring Agnes Bruckner, has grossed just $3.1 million.

The steep falls contributed to the top 12 films being off an estimated 12% compared with last year at this time, when Sony's "When a Stranger Calls" opened to $21.6 million.

There were two bright spots in the weekend's top 10. In fourth place, Fox's "Night at the Museum," in its seventh week of release, dropped a scant 29% to $6.7 million. The Ben Stiller starrer, still in more than 3,000 theaters, has grossed more than $225 million since it bowed during the holiday season. In eighth place, Picturehouse's Spanish-language film "Pan's Labyrinth," directed by Guillermo del Toro, grossed an additional $3.6 million, becoming the highest-grossing Spanish-language film to be released in the U.S. With a total cume of $21.7 million, "Labyrinth" surpassed Miramax Films' 1993 release "Like Water for Chocolate."

Sony has cornered the market on Super Bowl Sunday. The Culver City-based studio has bowed a first-place film on the big sporting weekend for each of the past seven years. Next year, Sony has the horror remake "Prom Night" scheduled for release on the date.

The PG-13 "Messengers," a thriller from Hong Kong brothers Oxide and Danny Pang, connected primarily with younger moviegoers and with more women than men, as expected with such genre releases. Produced by Sam Raimi and Ghost House Pictures, the film, which co-stars Kristen Stewart and cost about $16 million, generated a per-screen average of $5,736.

"When you consider the amount of horror films released in the marketplace, we consistently seem to have success with opening these films," Sony domestic distribution president Rory Bruer said. "(Screen Gems executive vp marketing) Marc Weinstock and his group know what the teen audience wants."

Sony boasted four films in the top 10 for the weekend, with "Stomp the Yard," in sixth place, and "The Pursuit of Happyness," in ninth place, holding on well, dropping 45% and 38%, respectively.

Despite weak reviews, "Because," starring Diane Keaton and Mandy Moore, scored well with the intended female audience. Exceeding expectations, the film from director Michael Lehmann resonated well as a counterprogramming option, specifically reaching women under 21. Bowing in 2,526 theaters, the PG-13 film, also featuring Lauren Graham and Piper Perabo, generated a per-screen average of $5,155.

"I'm very happy for Paul Brooks and Gold Circle," Universal domestic distribution president Nikki Rocco said. "This film will be very profitable for us."

MGM and the Weinstein Co. had great success with the limited release of "The Factory Girl," starring Sienna Miller. The film from director George Hickenlooper grossed $95,291 on three screens for an estimated per-screen average of $31,764. It was the highest-grossing film at the ArcLight theater in Los Angeles and at the Angelika theater in New York.

"We are proud that 'Factory Girl' opened so strongly, and we plan to expand it over the next few weeks," Weinstein Co. co-head Harvey Weinstein said. "Audiences clearly want to see this provocative, sexy and compelling film."

Warner Bros. Pictures pushed two of its best picture Oscar contenders, generating satisfactory results. The second weekend of the rerelease of Martin Scorsese's "The Departed" earned the studio an additional $2.3 million for the frame. On 1,453 screens, the star-studded mob drama fell just 31% from last frame, pushing the film's total cume to $128.6 million. Scorsese's DGA Award on Saturday might have provided an additional boost as the film makes its way to the Academy Awards.

Warners expanded Clint Eastwood's "Letters From Iwo Jima" to 720 locations. The film grossed an additional $1.7 million, putting its total cume at $7.5 million.

Although "Letters" has been on the big screen the fewest number of days among the Oscar-nominated best picture films, it retains the highest-grossing per-theater average.

Paramount Vantage's "Babel," which bowed in late October, grossed a weak $482,991 for the frame. The multilayered drama from Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu was in 1,090 theaters, generating a per-theater average of $1,587. The film is close to cracking the $30 million mark.

Miramax's "The Queen," which is now in 1,850 theaters, grossed an estimated $2.7 million for the weekend for a per-screen average of $1,465. The Helen Mirren starrer has now earned $45.5 million.

New Line Cinema's Oscar contender "Little Children" earned $244,000. The film, still on 88 screens, received an 18% boost in its weekend gross, likely because of the Oscar nominations for actors Kate Winslet and Jackie Earle Haley. The Todd Field-directed drama has now earned $4.4 million.

Fox Searchlight generated an estimated $1.8 million for "Notes on a Scandal." The film, with two Oscar nominations for Judi Dench and Cate Blanchett, was in 682 theaters for a per-screen average of $2,603. The R-rated British drama has now earned $11.8 million.

Searchlight's "The Last King of Scotland" grossed $1.3 million on 528 screens. The Forest Whitaker starrer generated a per-theater average of $2,434 for a total cume of $9.6 million.

Sony Pictures Classics' "Volver," which has a best actress Oscar nomination attached to it for Penelope Cruz, earned $885,012 in 587 theaters. The Pedro Almodovar-directed film's cume stands at $10.2 million, the most ever for an Almodovar movie in the U.S.

For the week that ended Thursday, domestic boxoffice totaled $153.6 million, down more than 5% from the comparable week in 2006. For the year total boxoffice stands at $639.7 million, down about 4.5% from 2006's $669.6 million. Admissions are down 8%.
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