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The weather outside might have been frightful in much of the country, and retail sales were down, but many responded to the tough times by heading to the movies during the Christmas holiday, where "Marley & Me," the tale of a big, lovable dog, scored a wow bow.

There were plenty of presents to go around: Fox's "Marley," Paramount's "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" and Disney's "Bedtime Stories," all of which opened Christmas Day, immediately established themselves as the top three Dec. 25 bows to date with openings of $14.7 million, $12 million and $10.6 million, respectively. In terms of best Christmas Days, irrespective of when a movie opened, "Marley" ranked second only to 2004's "Meet the Fockers," which opened on a Wednesday but built to a single-day Christmas take of $19.5 million on its first Saturday.

Even MGM/UA's historical thriller "Valkyrie" shared in the holiday spirit, scoring a stronger-than-anticipated fourth-place showing during a weekend that saw only Lionsgate's "The Spirit" stumble on its way out of the gate.

"Fortunately, we had a situation where all the top movies had core audiences that overlapped some, but each had a primary audience," Paramount vice chairman Rob Moore said. "The core audiences led the charge and also brought along people they also thought would be interested."

If that weren't cheering enough, Christmas movies tend to enjoy higher-than-average multiples (total grosses divided by opening weekend), so distributors are hoping they settle in for a long winter's run.

Nielsen reported that the weekend's three-day total of an estimated $204 million is the highest three-day Christmas weekend cume to date, surpassing 2003's three-day figure of $186.2 million. There are caveats, though: Last year's five-day Christmas holiday weekend remains the overall champ with $250.3 million.

Overall, boxoffice for the year crossed the $9 billion mark, marking the third year in a row that the figure has passed that milestone.

David Frankel's PG-rated "Marley," starring Owen Wilson and Jennifer Aniston as couple who take in a rambunctious pup, proved irresistible to many. Although prognostications favored "Bedtime" as the boxoffice leader, Fox 2000/Regency Enterprises' "Marley," playing in 3,480 theaters, set a surprisingly high bar Christmas Day and by the end of the weekend had collected an estimated $37 million for the Friday-Sunday portion of the holiday, good for an opening four-day cume of $51.7 million.

"It's playing to everybody, from 8-80," Fox distribution executive Bert Livingston said of the movie, which attracted family audiences and strong support from women. "It's a crowd-pleaser and a feel-good movie."

"Button" and "Bedtime" competed for the second slot throughout the long holiday weekend. "Button" made the bigger initial impression Thursday, though as the family crowd flocked to matinees, "Bedtime" hung in for a photo finish. In the end, "Bedtime" took the No. 2 spot for the three-day portion of the holiday, while "Button" was second overall during the course of the four days.

Although it had to concede some of the family pie to "Marley," Adam Shankman's PG-rated "Bedtime," starring Adam Sandler as a teller of tall tales, picked up $28.1 million during the three days on its way to a four-day cume of $38.6 million; playing in 3,681 theaters, the film's audience was comprised of 69% families. The opening was off the mark for a Sandler comedy, which typically posts three-day openings in the $30 million-$40 million range — but the softer "Bedtime" is not a typical Sandler comedy.

"I think we're showing remarkable consistency (with the movie's day-to-day numbers)," Disney distribution president Chuck Viane said. "We're pleased as we can be to get off to this start and to have the rest of the holiday in front of us. The fact that 31% of the audience was nonfamily I attribute to Adam Sandler. The two Adams really did a great job for us."

David Fincher's PG-13 "Button," starring Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett as time-crossed lovers, proved the top adult choice in the market as it set up shop in 2,988 theaters. With 70% of its audience over 25 and a 60-40 ratio skewing toward women, the Paramount/ Warner Bros. co-production had a weekend haul of $27.2 million and after four days boasted a cume of $39 million.

"We targeted an audience of 40-plus- and even 50-plus-year-olds, knowing that they would respond to the themes of the movie about the passing of time," Moore said. "That should also lead to a good multiple since older audiences tend to take their time to come out to a movie."

By making a bid for the available male audience, Bryan Singer's PG-13 "Valkyrie" demonstrated its own triumph of the will, ignoring the naysayers who questioned the wisdom of Tom Cruise starring as a German officer leading a plot to bring down Adolf Hitler. Carving its own turf in 2,711 theaters, it ranked fourth with a three-day figure of $21.5 million and a four-day cume of $30 million. Its audience skewed 55%-45% male, while 66% were over 25.

"When we decided in August to put the picture out on Christmas, it was a big gamble, but it paid off," MGM distribution head Erik Loomis said. "Tom Cruise worked harder than anyone I've ever seen. We knew it would be very competitive, but we thought it was different enough that we would have the male audience to ourselves."

There was one lump of coal amid the Christmas cheer: Lionsgate's "Spirit," Frank Miller's PG-13 adaptation of the Will Eisner graphic novel and the holiday's fifth wide opener, had to settle for ninth place with a four-day cume of $10.4 million.

Meanwhile, the second- weekend holdovers hit by bad weather in their initial outings exhibited staying power. Universal's animated "The Tale of Despereaux" fell just 11%; its three-day take of $9.4 million brought its tally to $27.9 million as it settled into seventh place overall.

The cume for Disney's animated "Bolt" hit $102.8 million, making it the 24th film this year to join the $100 million club.

As the studios look toward closing their books on 2008, Warners leads the way in market share and today expects to cross the $1.7 billion mark in domestic gross — a studio and industry record. Universal, which ranks fourth in market share, has reported a studio-best $1.108 billion. (partialdiff)
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