'Dear John' dethrones 'Avatar'

Wartime drama ends sci-fi epic's seven-week reign

Sony-quarterbacked "Dear John" thwarted a drive by James Cameron's "Avatar" for an eighth No. 1 weekend, as the over-achieving romantic drama's wily counter-programming play scored an estimated $32.4 million in opening domestic boxoffice during Super Bowl weekend.

"Avatar" posted a $23.6 million tally to grab second place on the frame, just days after receiving nine Oscar nominations. The sci-fi epic -- which this week became the top-grossing domestic release ever, after previously setting foreign and global records -- lifted its cumulative boxoffice to $630.1 million domestically and $2.21 billion worldwide.

Lionsgate's "From Paris With Love," starring John Travolta and Jonathan Rhys Meyers, was sacked by Americans' preoccupation with the pro football telecast, as the crime thriller bowed limply with $8.1 million in third place.

A pair of platform pics finally hit wide release after drawing Oscar nominations in several categories Tuesday. Fox Searchlight's Jeff Bridges starrer "Crazy Heart" -- whose topliner figured among Academy nominees -- wooed a heartfelt $3.7 million from 819 theaters for eighth place on the frame and a $11.2 million cume; Sony Pictures Classics' British drama "An Education" chalked up a lighter $915,407 from 761 locations for a $9.8 million cume.

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"We definitely benefited from the Academy nominations," Searchlight senior vp distribution Sheila DeLoach said.

Two sophomore-session holdovers absorbed sizable drops from week-earlier opening grosses. Warner Bros.' Mel Gibson starrer "Edge of Darkness" slid 59% to $7 million in fourth place and a $29.1 million cume, while Disney's romantic comedy "When in Rome" fell 55% to $5.5 million in sixth place with a $20.9 million cume.

Collectively, the weekend's top 10 films rung up $97.6 million. That was 21% less than top performers managed in last year's comparable frame, according to boxoffice tracker Rentrak.

In a limited bow, IFC Films unspooled serial thrillers "Red Riding Trilogy" on New York screen and grossed a full-blooded $15,523. Based on a series of David Peace novels, "Red Riding" expands to Los Angeles on Friday.

Oscilloscope opened Danish thriller "Terribly Happy" in a single New York location to gross a pleasing $13,000. "Happy" spreads to six theaters in three markets next weekend.

Elsewhere, Lionsgate's best-pic nominee "Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire" grossed $440,000 from 669 locations, or just $650 per site, after re-expanding by 447 venues. "Precious'" cume climbed to $46 million.

Summit Entertainment's Iraq War drama "The Hurt Locker" -- another best-pic contender -- grossed $123,000 after re-expanding to 110 theaters from a previous 28. That represented $1,118 per venue – an acceptable theater average, considering that "Hurt Locker" is already on DVD -- as pic cume hit $13.4 million.

Sony Pictures Classics' "The Last Station" -- for which Christopher Plummer landed a supporting-actor nom playing Leo Tolstoy and Helen Mirren a best-actress nod as his wife, Sofya Tolstoy -- added 44 locations for a total of 51 and grossed $371,064. That represented a robust $7,226 per venue, as "Station" cume motored to $758,531.

Nominated in Oscar's foreign film category, SPC's German-language drama "The White Ribbon" added four playdates for a total of 26 and grossed $131,924, or a solid $5,074 per engagement, with cume of $791,184.

An adaptation of a Nicholas Sparks novel, "Dear John" was wholly financed by Relativity Media and distributed under the Sony Screen Gems label.

The PG-13 pic shrugged largely negative reviews amid support from audiences comprised 81% of females and 64% of patrons under age 21. The demo was targeted when a trailer from the film was included in the holidays release of "The Twilight Saga: New Moon," which also played to younger females.

"This was definitely the females driving the movie, and you could see the momentum building," Relativity marketing maven Geoff Ammer said. "But I'm definitely surprised that we did as much as we did."

Directed by Lasse Hallstrom ("The Shipping News"), "Dear John" stars Channing Tatum ("G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra") and Amanda Seyfried ("Jennifer's Body"). Its opening was about $10 million higher than forecast from pre-release tracking data.

"We felt right from the beginning that we had something with this picture," Sony distribution topper Rory Bruer said. "But I don't think anybody could have anticipated that it would do this well."

The opening was the biggest ever for a Super Bowl session, surpassing a $31.1 million bow by 2008's "Hannah Montana/Miley Cyrus: Best of Both Worlds Concert Tour."

Helmed by Pierre Morel ("Taken"), "Paris" is rated R and attracted audiences skewing 55% male, with 71% of patrons aged 25 or older. That was a demo highly preoccupied with the pigskin telecast on Sunday, and an East Coast blizzard also hurt the pic earlier in the weekend.

"It came in lower than anticipated," Lionsgate exec vp distribution David Spitz acknowledged. "Mother Nature didn't help our cause."

Looking ahead, Warners unspools romantic comedy "Valentine's Day" over a four-day frame featuring both that holiday and President's Day. Also set to unspool wide: Fox's book-based kids pic "Percy Jackson & The Olympians: The Lightning Thief" and Universal's Benicio Del Toro starrer "The Wolfman."