'Christmas Carol' wins boxoffice

Movie earns a lower-than-expected $31 million

It's beginning to look a bit like Christmas as Disney's "A Christmas Carol" bowed during the weekend to an estimated $31 million at the North American boxoffice. That number wasn't as big a holiday gift as the studio was hoping for, but with Christmas seven weekends away, the 3D movie has time to spread cheer.

There already is plenty for Oscar contender "Precious" to celebrate: Lionsgate's select-theaters debut of Lee Daniels' drama about an abused inner-city teen took in an enthusiastic $1.8 million in 18 theaters in four cities for a powerful $100,000 per-screen average.

But with the second weekend of the Michael Jackson documentary "This Is It" holding the second spot, dropping just 40% from its opening, the frame's other arrivals found it tougher to secure a foothold.

Overture's military satire "The Men Who Stare at Goats" checked in at third place with $13.3 million. Although finishing in fourth place, Universal's horror thriller "The Fourth Kind" found a genre audience willing to fork over $12.5 million. And the weekend's other wide arrival, Warners Bros.' "The Box," a "Twilight Zone"-like tale, tagged behind in sixth place with $7.9 million.

According to Nielsen EDI, the weekend' top 10 films amassed $106.7 million, up 38% compared with last week but down 14% from the same weekend last year, when "Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa" led with $63.1 million.

In the top spot, "Carol" illustrated the growing appeal of 3D. Of the 3,683 locations in which the movie played, 181 offered it in Imax 3D; RealD dominated the non-Imax 3D showings, with 1,535 locations using its technology. Nearly three-quarters of the movie's $31 million gross came from 3D locations, with Imax alone accounting for $4.5 million, or 14.5% of the total gross, a record November-December opening for the large format, whose relationship with "Carol" director Robert Zemeckis goes back to November 2004's "The Polar Express."

"There's a natural connection between Zemeckis and Imax," Imax president of filmed entertainment Greg Foster said.

Agreed Disney distribution president Chuck Viane: "The 3D of it all is where the public is going. They are choosing to see this picture in 3D, and it's spectacular in 3D."

CinemaScore actually found that the movie scored higher -- earning an A-minus -- in 3D theaters than in non-3D venues, where it registered a B-plus. The 3D appeal also might have accounted for the fact that 15% of the audience were teens separate from the family crowd, a larger component than Disney was expecting for the PG-rated movie's first weekend.

"Carol" did open well below its star Jim Carrey's previous holiday movie, "How the Grinch Stole Christmas," which bowed to $55.1 million in November 2000. But its final tally still could surprise, Viane said, because "Holiday movies that open early tend to get above-average multiples."

"Polar Express" had a $23.3 million three-day and $30.6 million five-day opening and went on to gross $162.7 million domestically during its first run. It also had an Imax component, which boosted its tally and should be an even bigger factor for "Carol," at least until Fox's "Avatar" arrives Dec. 18.

The opening that had rival distributors buzzing was the wow bow of "Precious." Lionsgate picked up the R-rated drama out of Sundance, where it began to win over critics. Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry came aboard as executive producers to present the movie, and Lionsgate tested the waters during the weekend by launching it in a mix of theaters in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Atlanta, catering to the art house crowd and Perry's fan base.

"Everyone was cautiously optimistic that the movie would attract African-Americans and also cross over to the mainstream audience, and it worked across the board," Lionsgate distribution executive David Spitz said. "It really shows the power of Oprah and the power of Tyler, mixed with a fantastic movie from Lee Daniels."

The film will expand this weekend to five more markets -- Philadelphia, Washington, Houston, Dallas and San Francisco -- as it looks to build for the long awards-season haul.

Zipporah Films' debut of Frederick Wiseman's latest documentary "La danse," a nearly three-hour look at the Paris Opera Ballet, also proved a smash showing on a single 150-seat screen at New York's Film Forum, where it sold out its shows and captured $14,000 during the three days, bringing its opening five-day total to $21,220.

The distributor Friday will add a second screen at the Forum. On Nov. 20, "Danse" will expand to Los Angeles and Chicago before rolling out to top markets later in the month and into early December.

The weekend's other wide debuts didn't represent major financial bets on the part of their respective distributors.

Overture picked up "Goats," an R-rated comedy starring George Clooney and directed by Grant Heslov, from Winchester Films and Clooney and Heslov's Smokehouse Pictures for less than $5 million, and it performed slightly higher than expectations with $13.3 million from 2,443 locations.

"We're feeling really good because it's one of the only comedies for the next few weeks, and that bodes well for the picture," Overture distribution chief Kyle Davies said.

Universal, which is handling U.S. distribution for "Fourth Kind," a PG-13 alien-abduction thriller from Gold Circle directed by Olatunde Osunsanmi and starring Milla Jovovich, collected $12.5 million from 2,527 engagements.

"There was a great online campaign, and these types of films react to that," said Universal distribution head Nikki Rocco, who judged the returns "a solid result."

Similarly, Warners didn't have a major investment in "Box," a twisty PG-13 tale directed by Richard Kelly ("Donnie Darko") and starring Cameron Diaz and James Marsden. The studio invested about $7.5 million in the $30 million production from Radar Pictures and Media Rights Capital.

"We had modest expectations for the film, and it's right where we thought it would be," Warners distribution executive Jeff Goldstein said.

Second-place finisher "This Is It" attracted another $14 million domestically in 3,481 theaters, bringing its North American total to $57.8 million. It also grabbed $29 million overseas to bring the Jackson doc's worldwide total to $186.5 million.

Rounding out the top 10, Paramount's "Paranormal Activity" was fifth with $8.6 million, bringing its domestic cume to $97.4 million. Universal's "Couples Retreat," which quietly has been demonstrating legs, didn't show drop-off from the previous weekend, admittedly a quiet frame at the boxoffice; the adult-appeal romantic comedy pulled in $6.4 million during the frame as its cume rose to nearly $96 million.

Overture scored a second picture in the top rankings with "Law Abiding Citizen," in eighth place with $6.2 million and a cume of $60.9 million. Warners' "Where the Wild Things Are" was ninth with $4.2 million and a new purse of $69.3 million, and Summit's "Astro Boy" was 10th with $2.6 million and a domestic gross of $15.1 million.

On the limited front, Paladin released Brant Sersen's comedy "Splinterheads" in one theater in New York, where it drew $12,000.

The second weekend of "The Boondock Saints II: All Saints Day," which Apparation is distributing for a fee for Sony Pictures Worldwide Acquisitions Group, picked up $431,000 on 105 screens. Said Apparition's Bob Berney: " 'Boondock Saints' fans showed up again the second weekend, reporting only a 21% drop from the initial weekend. We will expand this Friday into 12 additional markets with another 125 screens, with a further expansion on Nov. 25."

Sony Pictures Classics expanded "An Education" to 83 screens, where it rang up $665,897 to bring its cume to $2.4 million. "Coco Before Chanel" moved up to 301 screens, collecting $604,906, bringing its total to $4.2 million.
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