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Do the math: 'Bucket List' lived its life to the fullest

Multiplication matters, especially when it comes to how movies perform at the boxoffice.

Week in and week out, the spotlight shines on those movies that crack the top 10 — or, in the case of the consumer press, the top five. And as soon as movies slip out of the top spots, they are quickly forgotten.

But those opening-weekend numbers only tell part of the story. Consider December's slate of releases, which are winding down their runs.

The crude rule of thumb is that a movie will go on to gross a multiple of 2.5 times its opening weekend. That, for example, was the case with New Line's "The Golden Compass." Although it opened in the top spot for the weekend of Dec. 7, it captured a disappointing $25.8 million and went on to a domestic take of just $70.1 million — a multiple of 2.7.

Hit movies usually do better than that, of course. Warners' "I Am Legend," the dominant player during the holidays, opened to $77.2 million on its way to $256.1 million. In its case, it achieved a solid 3.3 multiple.

But the real stories prove to be those movies that command even higher multiples, hanging in there week after week. These days, movies with family appeal often show the longest staying power. Although Fox's live-action/animated "Alvin and the Chipmunks" opened in second place, it proved to be one of the holiday season's powerhouses. With an opening of $44.3 million, it eventually grossed $215.3 million, achieving an enviable multiple of 4.86. Disney's "National Treasure: Book of Secrets" followed a remarkably similar trajectory: After a $44.8 million opening, it climbed to a domestic gross of $217.2 million, a 4.85 multiple.

But viewed in terms of multiples, the biggest surprise among the year-end releases proved to be Warners' "The Bucket List," starring Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman as two old codgers who refuse to go gently into that good night.

Released on 16 screens on Christmas Day, it was the movie that could get no respect. Critics were dismissive, it scored a below-average 40% rating on RottenTomatoes, and it struck out in a quixotic bid for awards attention.

The film then went wide during its third weekend, fanning out to 2,911 theaters, when it suddenly shot up to No. 1 with a $19.4 million gross. The rule of the multiple suggested that it was heading for a gross of about $50 million.

But "Bucket" defied expectations. During the first half of its wide release, it rarely dropped by more than 25% each weekend. It commanded more than 2,000 theaters for six weekends and didn't fall below 1,000 theaters until last weekend — its 12th. As it winds down, "Bucket" has taken in more than $90 million domestically. That computes to a multiple of 4.65, which puts it right up there with "Alvin" and the "Treasure" sequel in terms of drawing power. Produced for about $45 million, it is well on its way to profitability.

What makes its success all the more impressive is that "Bucket" is just the sort of midrange movie that finds it tough going in the overcrowded market. And though Warners often has been criticized for failing to support such midrange titles, in this case it beat the odds by using a limited opening to platform the film before its wide release and then nurturing it through an extended run.

In the end, by appealing to older audiences — who don't rush the boxoffice on opening weekend but do manage to get in there in their own sweet time — "Bucket List" maximized its multiple.