'Rings' tops record Yule B.O.

“Ali” stung like a bee on Christmas, recording a $10.2 million perf on its first day in the ring, smashing a record for pics opening on Dec. 25.

But Sony’s boxing biopic failed to dethrone “Lord of the Rings,” whose $11.6 million X-mas gross for New Line capped a five-day total of $66.1 million.

That led a rush of Friday openers whose five-day gross set a Christmas weekend record of $199 million. Last year, the holiday fell on a Monday, generating $155.2 over a four-day frame. That coincidence of the calendar gives an additional shot in the arm to an annual box office that now stands at a record $7.78 billion — up 8.9% from the same period last year.

“I think (a Tuesday Christmas) is set up well for the business,” said Dan Marks, an exec veep of the box-office tracking service EDI. “The thing that tends to be the fly in the ointment is Christmas Eve. It’s usually a shutdown day. Falling on a Monday is the least harmful situation you could have.”

That didn’t help Miramax’s “Kate & Leopold,” the other wide-release opener on X-mas, which managed just a $2.5 million perf on 2442 screens.

But it gave continued momentum to Warner Bros’ “Ocean’s Eleven,” which grossed $21.4 over five days to hit $102 million on X-mas, after just three weeks, and Par’s “Vanilla Sky,” which grossed $16.5 in the five-day sesh. Also going strong were Par’s “Jimmy Neutron,” which grossed $18.55 in its first five days, and the still-humming “Harry Potter” from Warner and “Monsters Inc.” from Disney, which took in $10.7 mil and $5.7 mil respectively.

And Universal’s “A Beautiful Mind” struck a chord with auds, grossing $2.5 million in the five-day frame after expanding from 11 to 524 screens Dec. 25.

The opening of “Ali” represented a payoff for Sony’s gamble in bumping the Michael Mann pic, which was originally set to debut Dec. 7.

“We had a big-event movie, and Christmas was the big-event date,” said Sony distrib and marketing topper Jeff Blake. “We thought we could make a big impact.”

Moving a release date late in the game, said EDI’s Marks, “no longer raises a red flag that says, ‘Uh oh.’ There are good marketing reasons to do it.”

Despite the comparatively meager debut of “Kate & Leopold,” Miramax marketing co-topper David Brooks said the mini-major stood by its decision to bump the release date twice, first from early 2002, then back several days to give “Rings” more breathing space.

“At the end of the day, this was the right release date for it,” says Brooks, who hopes that aud surveys showing broad demographic support for the pic will lead to growing numbers in the week ahead.

“Ali” also benefited from kudos buzz for Will Smith, who picked up a Golden Globe nom last week. “The strongest thing about the film, and what made it appeal to a large audience was Will Smith as Ali. That was our winning combination,” said Blake.

Before “Ali,” the highest grossing Christmas opener was “Patch Adams,” with $8 million.

Still lagging behind the pack were Fox’s “Joe Somebody,” whose five-day opening gross was $5.4 million and Warner’s “The Majestic,” which grossed $7.4 mil in its first five days.

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