Sony's 'Pursuit' pays off with $26.5 million debut

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Will Smith's credentials as a gold-plated draw took on added luster during the weekend as his new drama, Sony Pictures' "The Pursuit of Happyness," raked in $26.5 million to take the top spot at the North American boxoffice, according to Monday's final figures.

The victory boosted Sony to a new domestic boxoffice record as its year-to-date grosses passed $1.573 billion, the largest tally by any studio ever in a single year; Sony established the previous record in 2002. As part of its 2006 winning streak, the Culver City studio has fielded 13 No. 1 openings, the most top openers by any studio in a single year.

20th Century Fox also was a big winner on the weekend, earning $23.2 million for the fantasy actioner "Eragon," which checked in at No. 2 at the boxoffice. Made for a reported $90 million-$100 million -- the biggest-budgeted project to come out of the studio's Fox 2000 division -- the film adaptation of the Christopher Paolini book performed better then expected, establishing itself as a potential franchise.

No amount of marketing for Paramount Pictures/Nickelodeon Movies' "Charlotte's Web" could lure moms away from the malls this pre-Christmas weekend. Debuting at No. 3, the live-action/animated version of the E.B. White children's classic garnered just $11.5 million, less than expected. (By comparison, Sony's "Stuart Little," also adapted from one of White's books, bowed to $15 million on the comparable weekend in 1999.)

Paramount, though, is confident that the film will hold steady as moms become available over the holiday and with elementary-aged children out of school for winter break.

Optimism aside, the weekend total for the top 12 films failed to improve over last year at this time, finishing 8% lower with an estimated $112.2 million. That compared with $122.4 million last year, when Universal Pictures' "King Kong" debuted to $50 million.

In limited release, the debut of the Paramount Pictures/DreamWorks co-production "Dreamgirls" did phenomenal business in special roadshow engagements at three theaters. With tickets priced at $25 and only 21 shows for the weekend, the Bill Condon-directed musical grossed $378,950 for a per-screen average of $126,317. The film will continue playing this way until Dec. 25, when it expands to 800 theaters nationally.

Most of the holdovers from the previous weekend performed solidly during their sophomore sessions. Sony's romantic comedy "The Holiday" celebrated a 37% drop, placing fifth overall. The Cameron Diaz-Kate Winslet starrer grossed an additional $8 million to put its 10-day cume at $25.1 million.

Warner Bros. Pictures' "Blood Diamond" also held on strong. Likely benefiting from star Leonardo DiCaprio's Golden Globe nomination, the R-rated drama grossed an additional $6.5 million for a healthy 25% drop and a seventh-place finish. Although its opening weekend was a disappointment, the film's 10-day gross is $18.6 million, giving the film hope for the holiday period.

Mel Gibson's "Apocalypto" had the steepest fall of the holdovers -- the R-rated action movie fell 47%, a respectable drop for a film luring primarily males -- though it still captured the sixth-place slot. Buena Vista Pictures is confident that the film, which has earned $28.2 million after 10 days, will hold strong during the holidays, especially when Hispanics, who make up a large portion of the film's moviegoers, become more available.

Warners' "Unaccompanied Minors" also held steady, taking in $3.5 million, good for 10th place; the PG-rated film about a group of children stranded at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport over Christmas is gaining steam with more kids out of school. From director Paul Feig, "Minors" has grossed $10.1 million after two weekends.

In ninth place, New Line Cinema's "The Nativity Story" can't be counted out yet. The G-rated film about the birth of Jesus fell a scant 19% in its third weekend to collect $4.7 million. The film seems to be gaining momentum as it heads into what should be the film's sweet spot: the Christmas holiday.

In its fifth weekend, Warners' animated "Happy Feet" continued its successful dance. The singing penguins movie was secure in the No. 4 spot, grossing $8.4 million to bring its cume to $149.2 million.

The big story of the session is the star power of Smith, who appears equally adept at luring audiences to comedies, actioners and dramas. "Happyness," co-starring his son Jaden Christopher Syre Smith and helmed by Gabriele Muccino, scored with a wide swath of moviegoers.

As it stands, 10 of the actor's films have opened to more than $20 million, six of those coming from Sony, which clearly has benefited from the partnership.

"We've had an amazing year, and what better way to end it than with Will Smith," Sony distribution president Rory Bruer said. "Audiences just love him, whether it's action-adventure, comedy or pure drama; he does it all, and he always delivers."

The film's opening was more reason for holiday celebrating at Sony. After a tough 2005, the studio has engineered an impressive turnaround that has had 13 of its 27 films bowing at No. 1.

"We've set a bar that will be challenging for us -- or any studio -- to top," said Jeff Blake, vice chairman of Sony Pictures Entertainment. "We successfully launched our animation division, and we handled nearly every genre of movie, from broad comedies to family films, emotional dramas to event tentpoles. This kind of year is only possible when everyone is working at the top of their game, and our filmmakers really delivered exceptional product this year."

Buena Vista is likely to top Sony's global total, which stands at more than $3 billion, but Sony will handily take top domestic honors for the year.

Fox also has seen its films perform well this year. Between Fox and its specialty division Fox Searchlight, Fox Filmed Entertainment received four of the five Golden Globe nominations for comedy. The studio also has scored with fantasy and sci-fi, distributing hits like "X-Men: The Last Stand."

In the current frame, its adaptation of "Eragon," directed by Stefen Fangmeier, performed well among the younger set and older males. Rated PG, the dragon fantasy brought in both sci-fi fans and fans of the book.

"We're thrilled," Fox distribution president Bruce Snyder said. "We were hoping it would get into the high teens. There is pretty good business overall, which portends well for the holiday season."

Paramount is putting a positive spin on the debut of "Web," directed by Gary Winick. The company is counting on the winter break to lure in younger audiences and their parents.

"We trading off a big opening for a big multiple," said Rob Moore, Paramount president of worldwide marketing and distribution. "Saturday started a run of 23 consecutive days where some kids are going to be out of school. The reviews have been good, and moms have such an affinity for this movie that, based on this opening, this movie should get to between $90 million-$110 million."

The studio says it backloaded much of its marketing dollars this past weekend and the next two to come in anticipation of a performance in this range; though the studio's outdoor ads and mall displays have been up since Thanksgiving, its television has been collapsed into last week and the next two weeks.

In limited release, Warners bowed Steven Soderbergh's "The Good German" in five theaters. The film earned $76,817 for a strong per-screen average of $15,363. MGM opened Irwin Winkler's "Home of the Brave" in three theaters. The film grossed $5,367 for a per-screen average of $1,789.

For the week ending Dec. 14, total boxoffice amounted to $132.4 million, down 25% from the $177 million grossed during the comparable week in 2005. For the year-to-date, the domestic boxoffice stands at $8.65 billion, up more than 5% over 2005's $8.22 billion.
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