'Museum' still No. 1 b.o. exhibit

'Children' finds berth at No. 3

Although 20th Century Fox's "Night at the Museum" and Sony Pictures' "The Pursuit of Happyness" captured the top two spots at the domestic boxoffice for the third weekend in a row, a portion of the audience was looking for something different during the first full frame of 2007, and that catapulted Universal Pictures' "Children of Men" into the No. 3 spot.

Universal's quick decision to expand the futuristic film directed by Alfonso Cuaron a week earlier than planned clearly paid off as it grossed an estimated $10.3 million in 1,209 theaters. Paramount Pictures also benefited from being nimble as it bowed its schoolroom drama "Freedom Writers" a week earlier as well, grossing an estimated $9.7 million, good for fourth place.

Fox's "Museum" maintained the top spot for the third consecutive weekend with an estimated $24 million, bringing its cume to $164.1 million. Meanwhile, Sony held on to the No. 2 spot during the fourth weekend of release of the Will Smith starrer "Happyness," which picked up an estimated $13 million.

Among the new releases, Lionsgate earned decent marks with its animated film "Happily N'Ever After," which bowed to an estimated $6.8 million and the sixth-place spot. New Line Cinema's comedy "Code Name: The Cleaner" didn't fare as well, however; the Cedric the Entertainer starrer bowed in 11th place with a weekend gross of an estimated $4.6 million.

Overall, the top 12 movies generated an estimated $106.3 million, a small 0.46% increase over last year at this time, when Lionsgate bowed "Hostel" to $19.5 million.

The top 10 holdovers performed strongly in the marketplace, with nothing falling more than an estimated 43%.

In fifth place, Paramount's release of DreamWorks' musical "Dreamgirls" generated an additional $8.8 million for a strong $10,358 per-theater average, the best mark among the top 10. The film, still in a fairly limited release of 852 theaters, has grossed $54.4 million. Paramount intends to expand it to 1,800 theaters next frame.

In eighth place, Universal's R-rated spy drama "The Good Shepherd" fell $41% to $6.5 million. The film starring Matt Damon and Angelina Jolie has generated close to $50 million.

In ninth place, MGM's "Rocky Balboa" is holding strong; the underdog story generated another $6 million, pushing its gross to an estimated $60 million.

Among the limited releases, Picturehouse's "Pan's Labyrinth" continues to perform strongly. The R-rated adult fairy tale from director Guillermo del Toro grossed $727,066 on 44 screens, up 17 screens from last frame. The film generated a per-screen average of $16,524, and its two-week cume stands at $1.8 million. Picturehouse intends to add 200 screens this weekend, and company head Bob Berney is considering an even larger expansion than initially planned for Jan. 19. On Saturday, "Labyrinth" was named film of the year by the National Society of Film Critics.

Fox Searchlight's "Notes on a Scandal" also is generating strong interest in limited release. The R-rated British drama starring Judi Dench and Cate Blanchett grossed $1.1 million, good for a per-screen average of $11,328, as it saw its theater count go up by 71. The film's cume now stands at $2 million, and it will expand to 20 additional cities this weekend, adding about 115 theaters.

For Universal, "Children's" success was about recognizing an opportunity in the marketplace. According to distribution president Nikki Rocco, the studio saw how well the R-rated film starring Clive Owen bowed on Christmas Day and made the decision to expand wide.

"Waiting would have not been the smart thing for this movie," she said. "It's been on so many 10-best lists, there have been great reviews. This was the right way to alter the strategy and catch the audience's imagination. We deserve a pat on the back; we did a great job."

Paramount made a similar decision, pushing up a week the release of the PG-13 "Writers," starring Hilary Swank and directed by Richard LaGravenese, because of the film's strong playability. "We knew that the movie played really well, and we wanted to go on a limited number of runs to get the word out," said Jim Tharp, Paramount president of domestic distribution.

An MTV Films production, "Writers" played primarily to the under-21 crowd, generating a diverse audience made up of 51% white, 30% black and 20% Hispanic. According to the studio, the film generated a 93% definite recommend in exit polls. Paramount will add about 700 theaters this weekend.

Lionsgate earned a solid win with its quirky animated tale "Happily." Its first foray into animation was a straight distribution deal for the studio, which will earn the scrappy independent some nice coin.

"There was no financial exposure for us with this movie," Lionsgate distribution president Steve Rothenberg said. "There is more animated product coming from us, and this is a nice start. It will make the company several million."

The success of "Museum" and "Happyness" is quite remarkable, but it could be argued that it is coming with a price.

"Museum," from director Shawn Levy, has earned $164.1 million in three weekends of release, but the accessible PG comedy starring Ben Stiller has stunted the growth of Fox's other wide holiday release, the PG dragon fantasy tale "Eragon." "You have to look at your own success, and 'Museum' cannibalized our other film," Fox general sales manager Chris Aronson said. Still, "Eragon" has earned $66 million in domestic sales and twice that internationally, ensuring that it eventually will be profitable for the studio.

"Happyness" might have delivered a similar blow to Sony's "The Holiday." Although "Happyness" is a drama and "Holiday" is a romantic comedy, both films are targeting an adult audience, and the Nancy Meyers-directed "Holiday" is not generating the multiples usually seen with her films. Its five-week cume stands at an estimated $59 million.

Meanwhile, Sony's other wide release, "Casino Royale," generated an additional $3.1 million, increasing its total cume to an estimated $159.9 million and putting it within $1 million of becoming the highest domestic-grossing Bond film ever when it passes 2002's "Die Another Day."

Also in limited release, Paramount expanded DreamWorks' "Perfume: The Story of a Murderer" to 280 theaters. The R-rated drama generated $551,000, putting its two-week cume at $649,000.

MGM expanded the Weinstein Co.'s "Miss Potter" to 26 theaters. The Renee Zellweger starrer earned $123,000 for a per-screen average of $4,731, moving the film's two-week cume to $140,555.

"Babel" seems to be benefiting from its early awards recognition. The film, which has been in theaters since the end of October and is now playing on 190 screens, grossed $463,902, bringing its total to $20.7 million.

New Line expanded "Little Children" to 103 screens. The drama grossed $350,000 for a per-screen average of $3,398. The film's gross stands at $2.95 million.

Warner Independent Pictures' "The Painted Veil" earned $480,000 in its third weekend. The studio specialty division added 35 screens for the drama, starring Edward Norton and Naomi Watts. Generating a per-screen average of $6,667, the film's gross is $1.2 million. WIP will expand the film this weekend to 200 runs.

Sony Pictures Classics' "Curse of the Golden Flower" generated an additional $353,992 on 55 screens, five fewer than the previous weekend, good for a $6,436 per-screen average and an overall cume of $2.3 million.

For the week ending Thursday, total grosses amounted to $278.4 million, up nearly 18% over the comparable week a year ago, which took in $236.6 million. For the 2006 boxoffice year, the final gross tally stands at $9.46 billion, up more than 5% compared with 2005's $8.99 billion.
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