U unwraps a late B.O. gift

Actual figures shift order

Some final weekend box office figures released Monday diverged from the Sunday estimates even more than normal, as the Christmas holiday upended the studios’ normal estimates.

Biggest winner after actual numbers were reported was Universal and its “Meet the Fockers,” which brought in $46.1 million over the three-day span and $70.5 million since its Wednesday opening. That’s up significantly from U’s Sunday estimate of $44.7 million over the weekend and a $68.5 million cume.

The new “Fockers” figures mean the pic lays claim not only to the biggest Christmas Day gross (its $19.5 million was well above the $14 million rung up last year by “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King”) but also set the record for biggest gross on Dec. 26, with $19.4 million Sunday.

‘Albert’ less weighty

In another adjustment, “Fat Albert,” from 20th Century Fox, moved into third place when its actual gross slipped to $10 million, down more than 20% from its Sunday estimate of $12.7 million.

That gave Paramount the frame’s silver award for “Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events,” which stayed steady with a final figure of $12.6 million (a smidge more than its $12.5 million estimate).

The screwy holiday schedule, with Christmas Eve dampening normally buoyant Friday biz and then Christmas inflating receipts on Saturday, threw an industrial-sized monkey wrench into the studios’ system for producing the estimates they release on Sunday.

Driven by the media’s demand for up-to-the-minute figures, distribs spend Sunday mornings prognosticating how much money they’ll make the rest of that day. By comparing their Friday and Saturday grosses with the past performance of similar films, they usually get a good idea of how many tickets they’ll sell on Sunday evenings.

Estimates tend to be higher than the actual figures (in part because distrib execs are more likely to get grief from their own bosses for undershooting rather than overshooting on Sunday) but generally are pretty close to the final figures.

Unscientific method

But with the holiday distorting Friday and Saturday grosses so much, calculating a Sunday number this weekend was about as scientific as divining the future from tea leaves and pig entrails.

“It’s an insane thing to do,” Fox distrib prexy Bruce Snyder said. “We shouldn’t have done it. You don’t know how to speculate off Christmas and Christmas Eve because there’s no other days like them. It was a miracle so many people were as close as they were.”

“Everyone estimates everything off of Friday,” said U’s distrib chief Nikki Rocco. “But with Friday being Christmas Eve, when many theaters close down at noon, you didn’t get a good handle on your Friday number.”

In addition to the switcheroo of “Snicket” and “Albert,” Dimension’s “Darkness” traded places with Warner Bros.’ “The Polar Express” when final numbers were tabulated.

In the end “Darkness” came in at $6.2 million (down from its estimate of $6.4 million), which drops it to No. 7. “Polar” moved into the No. 6 spot with its final figure of $6.5 million, up from its estimate of $6.3 million.

Same again

This weekend, with New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day on Friday and Saturday, likely will create similar problems for studio execs making estimates.

Nielsen EDI also revised its total weekend biz estimate sharply downward on Monday. Firm now says total box office for the three-day span was $134.8 million, a 28% decline from the comparable 2003 weekend.

Lower figure further narrows 2004’s year-to-date box office lead over last year. Total receipts are at $8.894 billion, just $40 million (or 0.4%) ahead of where they were at this point last year. Year ends next Sunday and could be the second straight year that both box office revenue and attendance are down.

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