Where there's a Will

$76.5 mil 'Legend' bow is best for Smith, December

Warner Bros.' Will Smith starrer "I Am Legend" opened famously indeed during the weekend, ringing up an estimated $76.5 million in estimated domestic boxoffice to notch Smith's — and even December's — best-ever bow.

Fox's live action-with-animation comedy "Alvin and the Chipmunks" chipped in $45 million in an incredibly strong second-place opening that additionally helped to stir the recently somnolent marketplace.

New Line's family fantasy "The Golden Compass" was far behind with $9 million in third place, marking a big 65% drop from its opening grosses and a 10-day cume of $41 million. Yari Film Group's seasonal comedy "The Perfect Holiday" had a first-weekend haul of almost $3 million to nab sixth place, with a Wednesday bow pushing cume to $3.6 million.

Industrywide, the weekend's $163 million in collective boxoffice marked a big 35% uptick against the same frame last year, according to data tracker Nielsen EDI. A year ago, Smith's "The Pursuit of Happyness" topped the charts with $26.5 million in opening grosses.

Year-to-date, EDI data shows the industry is 5% ahead of the same period of 2006 with a collective $8.93 billion in domestic grosses. But even with this weekend's big haul, the holiday season is lagging behind that of a year ago by 5%, with $760.7 million in the seasonal register to date.

In a limited bow this weekend, Paramount Vantage debuted the DreamWorks-produced drama "The Kite Runner" with 35 playdates and grossed $450,970. That represented a notable $12,885 per engagement, with plans to expand the literary adaptation to 350 runs on Friday.

Sony Pictures Classics unspooled Francis Ford Coppola's "Youth Without Youth" in six venues — three in Los Angeles, two in New York and one in San Francisco — and grossed $27,815, or an acceptable $4,636 per venue.

The weekend also featured notable expansions of specialty pics including Universal/Working Title's Golden Globes magnet "Atonement," a 1930s drama that added 85 engagements for a total 117 to gross $1.9 million in ninth place.

The performance gave the Keira Knightley-James McAvoy starrer an impressive per-theater average of $15,835 and a $3 million cume. Universal's Focus Features is distributing the Joe Wright-helmed pic in the U.S. and Alliance is in Canada, with additional expansions planned through Christmas to capture awards-season momentum.

"There is no doubt that the (film's seven Golden Globes noms) figured into commercial momentum this weekend," Focus distribution president Jack Foley said.

Fox Searchlight's comedy "Juno" — the buzz film of ShowEast this year — added 33 playdates for a total of 40 in grossing $1.4 million, or a whopping $36,018 per engagement, with a $2.2 million cume. "Juno" jumps into additional markets through Jan. 4.

Searchlight also added one location for "The Savages," starring Laura Linney and Philip Seymour Hoffman, for a total of 10 and grossed $97,602, or a solid $9,376 per site with a cume of $532,400. "Savages" is set for screen expansions into mid-January.

Elsewhere, Miramax's Coen brothers adventure "No Country for Old Men" added 24 theaters for a total of 1,348 to ring up $3 million and move its cume to $33.6 million.

ThinkFilm's drama "The Walker" added 11 locations for a total of 14 and grossed $20,500, a thin $1,463 per site with a $44,261 cume. The Weinstein Co.'s John Cusack starrer "Grace Is Gone" posted a disappointing second frame in its platforming campaign, adding three theaters for a total of seven to gross just $10,313, or $1,473 pre venue with a $30,860 cume.

"Legend," directed by Francis Lawrence ("Constantine") and co-produced by Village Roadshow on a budgeted estimated at $140 million, is based on a 1954 sci-fi novella by Richard Matheson in which a plague turns the world's population — except for one man (Smith) — into flesh-eating monsters.

"Legend" was adapted for the screen twice previously: in 1964 as the aptly titled "The Last Man on Earth" and in 1971 as the Charlton Heston starrer "The Omega Man."

"If there's a Will, there's a way," Warners distribution president Dan Fellman said. "Will Smith is the predominant movie star. Will is the man."

Smith beat his previous best bow for Fox's "I Robot," which opened with $52.1 million in July 2004. "Legend" outperformed the previous top December opener, New Line's "The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King," which unspooled with $72.6 million in 2006.

The "Legend" performance was tens of millions of dollars higher than execs had been hoping for, Fellman said. "That's the magic of this business," he mused. "You never know when something like this is going to happen."

"Legend" made the most of its 77 Imax engagements in the U.S. and Canada, ringing up $3.4 million, or an amazing $44,164 per auditorium. That represented a December-best bow for any Imax release.

"We've virtually sold our weekend," Imax Filmed Entertainment chairman Greg Foster said.

"Chipmunks," produced for under $60 million including CG animation by Rhythm and Hues, skewed 53% to family patrons. The Tim Hill-helmed pic, playing to baby boomer nostalgia for the singing Chipmunks of their youth, rung up almost twice as much as execs were projecting privately ahead of the weekend.

"Christmas must have come early," Fox senior vp distribution Chris Aronson said. "It's phenomenal."

Indeed, the "Chipmunks" performance represented the second-biggest opening for a PG-rated pic in December, behind only Disney's "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe," which bowed to $65.6 million in 2005.

Looking ahead, a bevy of big new pics will enter the market over an unusually busy release schedule for the oft-important Christmas period.

Wide openers set for Friday include Disney's "National Treasure: Books of Secrets," DreamWorks/Paramount's "Sweeney Todd," Sony's "Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story," Warner Bros.' "P.S. I Love You" and Universal's "Charlie Wilson War." Those set for Dec. 25 include Fox's "Alien vs. Predator: Requiem" and MGM/the Weinstein Co.'s "The Great Debaters."