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“Avatar” tops a weekend of holiday box office bounty

If you’ve been following the horse-race over at Nikki Finke’s place, you’ll know it’s been a very long holiday weekend of box office ups and down. However, for those of us who can wait a day or two for the results, it’s actually somewhat simple.

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James Cameron‘s super-expensive 3-D extravaganza for Fox, “Avatar,” emerged as the victor of a three-way battle for the top prize with an outstanding second-weekend estimated take of $75 million and an absolutely minuscule drop from it’s first weekend of 2.6%, according to Box-Office Mojo. The Hollywood conventional wisdom has it that most science fiction films drop by at least 50% on their second weekend. Clearly, this is not most science fiction films and the fact that people are waiting to see this one in 3D and paying extra for the privilege is not hurting. So, as I’ve alluded to often enough, the word of mouth on this thing is something else. However, as always, I await the backlash as some folks plunk down their extra-heavy 3D ticket price and fail to have a religious experience.

Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law as Holmes and Watson, or some version thereofSecond place, of course, was Guy Ritchie’s unorthodox action-comedy take on probably the oldest genre franchise in the biz, “Sherlock Holmes.” The Robert Downey, Jr./Jude Law team-up loosely drawn from the late 19th/early 20th century works of Arthur Conan Doyle defeated “Avatar” and all-comers on its record setting Christmas opening. It then fell a bit and earned a still whopping estimated $65.38 for Warner Brothers, a company that certainly has some experience with franchises. Better yet, this one is in the public domain, which means fewer folks get a share in the wealth.

Fox’s “Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel” actually beat “Avatar” by a couple of million on its early opening day last Wednesday, but fell sharply on Christmas Eve and rebounded the rest of the weekend, for a very healthy estimated third place showing of $50.2 million. Critics may detest it; parents may barely tolerate it, but, to paraphrase the old blues song, the little kids understand (or don’t know any better). The film’s total estimated take starting from its early opening is just a tad over $77 million.

Considering it’s a Golden Globe-nominated sex comedy presumably aimed at a very grown-up audience — not only because of the average age of its stars but also because it’s R-rated, Universal’s “It’s Complicated” has generated the critical equivalent of a shrug, with our own David Medsker coming down on the very much negative side. That doesn’t bode extremely well for this sort of movie, which can use all the critical and awards help it can get.

Meryl Streep and Alec Baldwin in Still, this weekend’s rising tide managed to lift this boat to the tune of an estimated $22 million or so, which is really not bad for this kind of film. Or, it wouldn’t be because Nikki Finke claims the budget was $80 million, which is way high for this kind of movie  and suggests to me that it’s possible stars Meryl Streep, Alec Baldwin, and Steve Martin let their agents negotiate extra-hard for a big pay-day because they were perhaps less than wowed by the film artistically. Universal just doesn’t seem to be cutting itself any breaks lately.

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Chills win as the “Paranormal” phenomenon grows

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It was a weekend of surprises at the box office. The most pleasant for those of us who prefer a chill up the spine to a gag reflex was the outstanding performance of “Paranormal Activity,” which handily defeated the dismemberment sweepstakes of “Saw VI” despite being in over a thousand fewer theaters than its horrific competitor.

As documented by Carl DiOrio of The Hollywood Reporter and the bean counters of Box Office Mojo, Paramount’s extremely wise ultra-ultra-ultra-low-budget paranormal pick-up earned an estimated $22 million as it expanded to 1,945 screens this week with a outstanding per screen average of $11,321. That’s compared to an estimated $14.8 million for the latest “Saw” entry (two more are still scheduled, including the inevitable 3-D installment) with a per screen average of $4,875, less than half of its spooky competitor.

The irony in all this is that, now that critics have had to paid their shekels to see the unscreened “Saw VI,” not only has it gotten better reviews than the last few entries — which is, of course, not the same thing as getting good reviews — it turns out to have at least an attempt at political content with a plot that involves both the sub-prime mortgage and health care debacles.

Seems to me that Lions Gate really had nothing to lose by screening this for critics and the political angle might have generated a bit more interest. “‘Sicko‘ for real sickos! ‘Capitalism: A Hate Story’! says Geekboy Moonraker of ‘Ain’t it Bloody Disgusting’” might have at least captured a bit more attention. Though, reading Owen Gleiberman‘s highly negative review, it’s interesting to note that both “Zombieland” and “Saw VI” do call attention to our nation’s obesity epidemic.

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“Couples Retreat” hits big, damn it + a “Paranormal” windfall

As Chris Difford and Glenn Tilbrook of Squeeze wrote so long ago, “Let’s face it, I’m wrong again.” Yes, my admittedly halfhearted hunch on Friday, that director Peter Billingsley’s multi-star comedy vehicle, “Couples Retreat,” would be lucky to break double-digits, has been proven to be laughably wrong. Instead, as per Andrew Stewart of Variety, the film grossed a cool estimated $35.3 million for Universal despite the appearance that nobody seemed to have a whole lot of confidence in it.

Couples RetreatIn my own defense, I was working on less second-hand “tracking” info that usual and no one I read ventured a specific guess (jolly Carl DiOrio of The Hollywood Reporter apparently took the weekend off). Also, I did indeed note the lack of competition, but I obviously vastly underestimated its import…until an extremely intelligent female friend of mine mentioned to me via Facebook that she’d seen it. True, she didn’t seem to like it — but by then it was too late and I then knew that even seemingly discerning viewers might glom onto it out of a lack of anything else in the same ballpark. Anyhow, it’s great news for the cast, and the grown-up star of “A Christmas Story” turned first-time director who will live to film again, sooner rather than later, probably. Let’s just call this one “Ralphie’s revenge.”

Otherwise, taking a look at the weekend’s estimated chart as supplied by Box Office Mojo will show few surprises, with Sony’s past chart toppers “Zombieland” and “Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs” both holding comfortably.  Among the limited releases, “An Education,” a Nick Hornby-penned literary adaptation with some awards potential, did a very healthy estimated $40,000 per screen in four theaters this weekend.

There is one hugely dramatic piece of data, however, and that’s the #5 showing of “Paranormal Activity,” which as you can read in my review, has the power to make even a presumably jaded Hollywood audience act like terrified 11 year-olds. Any sourpuss who tells you that this is all hype — and such sourpusses are already emerging online — certainly wasn’t in the same theater as me and definitely wasn’t feeling the same thing as me.

On the strength of its quickly growing buzz, the three-character video-flick scored a spectacular $44,000 per screen average and an estimated total of $7,066,000 in 159 theaters. (Compare that to the #6 film, “Surrogates,” which grossed $4,115,000 on 2,992 theaters.) I don’t see how Oren Peli’s thumpingly scary debut doesn’t emerge as one the year’s biggest hits and definitely its most profitable production; the mock-documentary supernatural horror tale’s original budget of $11,000 was exactly one-fourth of its per-screen take this weekend. Whoever dines with Oren Peli may now order the lobster, and whoever decided to pick this one up for Paramount can definitely sleep well at night.

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Rainy days and movieland Mondays… (Updated)

…Can really get you down. Especially if you’re a deposed big time executive.

* Marc Shmuger and David Linde are both now former honchos at Universal. As reported in the show biz paper of record, having a far better and busier Monday are Adam Fogelson and Donna Langley, from the marketing and distribution departments respectively. As for the why, I’m sure it can mostly be summed by a number of fairly expensive/high profile box office disappointments/flops including “Duplicity,” “Funny People,” “State of Play,” and the one that got almost no respect from anyone (except Roger Ebert), “Land of the Lost.”

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Still, you can trust Nikki Finke to find a more down and dirty side (Shmuger was “‘The Schmuck’”! Poor Linde was “collateral damage”) while Anne Thompson provides her usual sober assessment and notes that the real killer might have been the lack of any apparent “tentpoles” coming any time soon.

* On a similar note, the Rich Ross ascension at Disney is starting to look like a sure thing amidst an overall shake-up — or at least that’s what they’re saying today at Variety. We’re told to expect “a greater emphasis on tentpoles and family fare.” Not a surprise…gotta have them tentpoles.

UPDATE: Ross’s promotion is official. Anne Thompson has the press release.

* Nikki Finke also has an item to gladden the heart of our own Chris Glotfelty. “Paranormal Activity” has had what the Finke terms “freakishly good” business with $15,000 per screening averages (matching the amount I’m seeing reported as the film’s budget…very spooky!) in a special midnight-only engagement in 33 cities Thursday through Saturday, which means some theaters were making those numbers not only at midnight but even on a day when most people had work/classes the next morning. The film will be expanding into a regular release in 40 cities on Friday.

After reading a few reviews and seeing some comments online in addition to what Chris wrote, I have to say that in the wake of so-called “torture porn” and considering that filmic horror has, long ago, sometimes gone to places so horrible and extreme an awful lot of us won’t even consider following (and I don’t just mean silly gorephobics like me), it’s nice to see you can still scare an audience, including hardy souls like Chris (and supposedly Steven Spielberg), to death with not much more than a big, slow build-up and some very inexpensive atmosphere and basic special effects. Is it possible that our filmgoing innocence still lingers?

* Work on the “Arrested Development” movie continues. Yay.

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Slipping off for the weekend

A few last minute items as the the inglourious weekend gets seriously underway.

* If the movie world had a “Friday news dump” the way they do in D.C., the news that Martin Scorsese’s Dennis Lehane adaptation, “Shutter Island,” has been moved from November of ’09 to February of ’10 might be so handled. No such luck for Paramount as Nikki Finke, Anne Thompson and Screenrant and pretty much every two-bit blogger on the ‘net, including me, has something to say. This is not the first promising film to be so switched. “The Wolf Man” was also shunted by Universal from the traditionally good-movie rich fall to the less auspicious late winter.

Finances are obviously at the root, but speculation is rife on how the move might have been influenced by the Academy’s recent switch to ten awards annually. In any case, I tend to buy at least two of Nikki Finke’s reasons — a simple delay to spread out the financial cost of marketing the film around during tough economic times (perhaps with the hope of a better 2010) and the fact that star Leonardo DiCaprio wouldn’t have been able to promote the film this autumn. Considering they had people already fairly worked about the film, it’s a definite sign of some fragility, I’d say.

* Will the Twitter effect make movies better? Is it even real? Michael Sragow has a decent, yet frustrating, article on the ongoing topic. (H/t Anne Thompson.)

* After making one deal to direct an extremely ill-advised possible “Battlestar Galatica” re-reboot, Bryan Singer has also signed on to do a remake of John Boorman’s King Arthur epic, “Excalibur.” I love John Boorman’s work in general and also tales of chivalry and swordplay, yet I kind of hate (or at least can’t sit through) the original film, which many love but I find unspeakably turgid. So, I guess I’m open-minded about what Singer will do with it. Can almost only be an improvement for me. Of course, neither of these films may ever actually happen. Bryan Singer’s next film is expected to be “Jack, the Giant Killer.”

An interesting note about the 1962 movie version of the fairy tale (one no one ever bothered to tell me…I always thought it was another name for “Jack and the Beanstalk”). Many musicals have had their songs removed to be released in non-musical versions over the years, this is one of the very few where a producer attempted to turn it into a musical after the fact.

* And because everyone else is giving it to you, I might as well also serve up the trailer for Michael Moore’s new “Capitalism: A Love Story.” It made me laugh but of Christopher Campbell, whose favorite words lately seem to be “dated” and “derivative” (but not “delightful” or “delovely”) and his crew of usual suspects mostly think it disappoints. Do these guys ever like anything? Campbell never seems to. In comments, JoblessInTampa has some choice words for the Eastern film geek elites on the issue of being out-of-step.

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There is No Such Thing as a Free Movie

There is absolutely no doubt that the way we watch movies is changing, and changing fast. The film business has managed to avoid the wholesale slaughter of the music industry because of the higher bandwidth needed to convey a movie and the importance (to some of us, anyway) of picture and sound quality. Still, it’s only a matter of time before movies become easily available online, and distinctions between computers and TV sets as entertainment delivery systems is breaking down rapidly.

Hulu has become huge overnight by breaking down the barrier for TV shows and a limited but interesting selection of films despite sometimes erratic technical performance issues (at least on my iMac). Disney/ABC, Universal/NBC and, of course, the brain eating aliens are involved, though the enterprise was started by a force far more sinister and implacable: Rupert Murdoch’s NewsCorp.

Mashable’s Ben Parr today writes about Epix, which he describes as a joint venture of Paramount, Lionsgate, and MGM. Parr was allowed an early look at the site and, as a film fanboy, it sounds pretty great. If I understand it correctly, you would get the service as part of your cable TV or satellite package and would then be able to choose from a Hulu-like library to view either on television or via computer. If you’re into this stuff, you really should read for yourself. For me, one interesting aspect is that it’s unclear how deep that library would be, both because of marketing issues and because of the various confusing deals that have been struck over the years for MGM’s huge back catalog. (If you’re a masochist or just dig this stuff, here’s a Wikipedia taste.)

It all sounds great to me, except, just as there may be with Hulu, much as I enjoy the service it provides, it strikes me that there could be some anti-trust issues here. Or not. I’m only a lawyer in my mother’s fantasies. Cord Bloomquist, however, has a good rundown of the situation vis a vis Hulu from a libertarian perspective, but I’m no libertarian when it comes to megabusiness. I’m really more of a latte-sipping Hollywood (well, Anaheim) librul who thinks that media consolidation is perhaps the single most serious issue underlying all the other issues we deal with, so I’m a bit suspicious of all the studios getting into bed together for these kind of things.

Short version: Bob the liberal is wary, but Bob the movie geek is intrigued. And, let’s face it, one way or another, this the direction we’re going in. I’d just like to see more flowers blooming.

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