'Sex and the City' tops boxoffice

Exceeds expectations with an estimated $55.7 million

Warner Bros.' "Sex and the City" opened shockingly well this weekend, with the big-screen adaptation of the former TV series grossing an estimated $55.7 million domestically -- about double what many expected -- and grabbing first place on the frame.

The performance sparked immediate talk of a new film franchise's birth after the best-ever bow for a romantic comedy or an R-rated comedy of any sort. "The Strangers," an R-rated horror pic from Universal's Rogue Pictures, also outperformed pre-release expectations this weekend as the Liv Tyler starrer opened with $20.7 million in third place.

But almost as surprising as the frame's twin overachievers was the underperformance by Paramount's "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" over the otherwise robust boxoffice session.

Previously considered a lock for the weekend's top spot, the Steven Spielberg adventure film ended up dropping a big 54% from its first Friday-Sunday gross to land in second place with $46 million. That gave the Harrison Ford-Shia LaBeouf starrer a still-impressive 11-day cume of $216.9 million.

The Paramount/Marvel superhero film "Iron Man" finished fourth over its fifth weekend, with its $14 million on the frame shaping a year-leading $276.6 cume. Disney's family-fantasy sequel "The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian" took fifth place over its third session with $13 million and a $115.7 million cume.

Industrywide, the weekend marked a big 27% improvement over the same frame last year, according to Nielsen EDI. But year-to-date, 2008 is still off 3% and the seasonal boxoffice is down 6% from summer 2007.

In a limited bow this session, Paramount Vantage's martial-arts comedy "The Foot Fist Way" grossed $36,012 from four New York and Los Angeles locations. That represented a solid $9,003 per screen ahead of the film's Friday rollout to 20 theaters in 15 markets.

IFC Films unspooled its true-life crime drama "Savage Grace" with $24,156 from a pair of New York screens. The debut meant an encouraging $12,156 per venue, with the Julianne Moore starrer set to open in Los Angeles on Friday.

ThinkFilm bowed the drama "Stuck," starring Mena Suvara and Stephen Rea, on single screens in New York and Los Angeles to gross $10,200, or $5,100 per venue. "Stuck" expands to exclusive engagements in the top 15 markets next weekend.

Reel Source opened the documentary "Trying to Get Good: The Jazz Odyssey of Jack Sheldon" in a single Los Angeles venue, grossing $4,947.

Elsewhere in the specialty market, Sony Pictures Classics expanded its period war drama "The Children of Huang Shi" to 17 locations from a previous seven and grossed $50,471, or a so-so $2,967 per site, as the film's 10-day cume hit $116,216.

Overture's drama "The Visitor" held its 270 theaters and grossed $603,000. That was a thinning per-venue average of $2,233, but the platforming art house drama now boasts a cume of almost $5.4 million.

The IDP/Samuel Goldwyn drama "Roman de gare" held its 35 playdates to gross $105,245. That translated to an acceptable $3,007 per engagement, with a cume of $849,180 giving the French-language platformer a good chance of reaching $1 million domestically.

And in something of a weekend trend, Miramax held tight with the same 14 locations for its drama "Reprise," which grossed $57,000, or a sturdy $4,071 per site, with a $260,000 cume.

"Sex," whose distribution and marketing Warner took over from collapsed sister unit New Line, drew audiences skewing dramatically female amid reports galore of women buying tickets in groups in advance of the weekend.

In fact, the prospect of the film's outperforming expectations became apparent late Thursday and Friday, when online ticket services Fandango and MovieTickets reported widespread sellouts for many early showtimes in larger markets. "Sex" saw a big drop from Friday to Saturday, or its outsized opening would have been even more spectacular.

But it still outpaced the previous top opening by a romantic comedy -- Sony's $45.1 million four-day haul for February 2004's "50 First Dates" -- and for an R-rated comedy, scored by Universal's "American Pie 2," which bowed with $45.1 million in August 2001.

"There's never before been a female movie that had such an (opening) frenzy of the kind you see with young male movies," Warners distribution president Dan Fellman said. "Now I'm really looking forward to a sequel -- and hopefully many of them."

On Friday night, "Sex" drew audiences comprised 85% by female patrons. As for the age of those attending, "The majority of the audience was over 25, but they all looked good," Fellman quipped, getting into the spirit of the pic's glitzy campaign.

Warners' highly successful marketing efforts included stoking broad press coverage of how fans of the onetime HBO series planned girls-night-out trips to the multiplexes and other "Sex"-related shindigs. Execs estimate "Sex" production costs at under $60 million.

Meanwhile, Universal distribution president Nikki Rocco expressed pleasure that the studio's gutsy gambit of going against the female-targeted "Sex" machine had paid off. Even though horror pics tend to skew female, Universal execs believed that the "Strangers" would appeal to a different sort of moviegoer and that Tyler would help draw males.

They appeared right on both counts. Audiences for "Strangers" skewed only slightly female, at 51%, with 62% of patrons under age 25.

"It was a bold release strategy," Rocco said.

"Strangers" was produced by Rogue for an estimated $9 million.

Neither "Sex" nor "Strangers" appear directly challenged by this weekend's wide openers, but the more broadly playing holdovers will see strong competition from the animated family feature "Kung Fu Panda" from DreamWorks Animation and Paramount and Sony's Adam Sandler comedy "You Don't Mess With the Zohan."