While “Star Wars” continued to dominate both the box office and industry buzz after its incredible $21.4 million third weekend, the Presidents’ Day frame also offered a number of more down-to-earth surprises.

One was the successful opening of Warner Bros.’ “Vegas Vacation,” which according to pre-release market research was on track to lose big. Instead, the film cashed out with a solid $12.8 million, a debut on par with the previous three installments of the venerable Chevy Chase franchise.

The release marked the first media campaign headed by former New Line marketing guru Chris Pula, now president of theatrical marketing at WB.

Pula’s strategy, which mirrored his approach on such successful youth-oriented New Line releases as “Seven” and “Dumb and Dumber,” was to target the film’s young core audience with TV spending concentrated on the six days prior to release.

“We knew who the audience was, and we went after them,” Pula said. “We used a tidal wave of last-minute media purchasing for what is essentially an impulse consumer. They can decide to go to a movie in 10 minutes. They don’t need to make appointments four weeks out.”

Eighty percent of the TV buys were 15-second spots that ran predominantly on youth-oriented shows on Fox, UPN, the WB and MTV. “Everybody wastes their money on Thursday night,” Pula said, referring to such costly mainstream shows as “Friends,” “Seinfeld” and “ER.” “I didn’t want to spend $600,000 a minute.”

The campaign also relied heavily on radio spots on youth-oriented stations.

The pinpointed nature of the campaign also explains the film’s poor tracking, according to Pula. Because tracking looks at desire on the part of broad segments of the moviegoing population, it can miss interest in certain substrata.

“That’s why a movie can seemingly come out of nowhere,” Pula said. “If we do our job correctly and buy prudently, we should rarely do well with traditional tracking.”

It still remains to be seen, of course, how the film will hold up. Youth comedies often drop off quickly, because kids tend to rush out on opening weekend. And “Vacation” faces stiff competition next weekend, when “The Empire Strikes Back” reissue hits theaters.

The weekend’s top 60 films totaled $121.3 million, a 26% improvement over last year’s $95.9 million Presidents’ Day frame.

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