U laffer unwraps $45 mil to top holiday B.O.

Universal’s “Meet the Fockers” dominated the holiday market during the weekend, ringing up $68.5 million since it debuted Wednesday in 3,518 theaters. Pic did $44.7 million over the three-day weekend, finding $19.1 million — the biggest Christmas Day gross ever — under its tree on Saturday.

Fight for second place was tight. Based on estimates released Sunday, 20th Century Fox claimed the No. 2 spot for “Fat Albert,” which brought in more than $12.7 million from 2,674 theaters in only two days starting on Christmas.

It was closely trailed by Paramount’s holdover pic “Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events,” which did $12.5 million — down 58% — from 3,623 locations, bringing cume in its second week to $59.3 million.

Order of finish is likely to change when actual numbers come out today since both Fox and Par said they believed “Snicket” outgrossed “Albert” over the weekend. However, Fox believes Par’s estimate for “Snicket” is too low, while Par believes Fox is too high on “Albert.”

Overall, biz was down 25% from last year, when “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” ruled the roost, according to Nielsen EDI’s estimate. The slow holiday puts 2004 in danger of finishing behind 2003 in total box office, which would mark the second straight year of declines in both total receipts as well as attendance at theaters.

Miramax and Warner Bros.’ “The Aviator” clocked in at fourth place with $9.4 million during its first frame of wide release. Pic expanded to 1,796 theaters on Christmas and has cumed $10.8 million.

Warners’ “Ocean’s Twelve” finished out the top five, with $8.6 million in its third weekend, down 52% (cume: $86.9 million).

‘Darkness’ sees B.O. light

Also opening this weekend was Dimension horror pic “Darkness,” which bowed in sixth place with $6.4 million from 1,700 engagements, and Warners’ “Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera,” which picked up $4.2 million, good for the No. 10 spot, from 622 runs.

In its first week of wide release, Disney’s “The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou” lapped up $4.9 million after expanding to 1,105 theaters on Christmas.

“It’s great to have a Christmas hit like this,” Universal vice chair Marc Shmuger said of “Fockers.” “It’s the biggest start for a Christmas comedy ever. Things could not be lining up better for us right now.”

Pic played strongly in all four demographic quadrants. Exit polls from opening day on Wednesday showed 52% of the aud was female and 60% was under age 25.

Fox distrib chief Bruce Snyder said exit surveys on “Albert” found strong support from family auds. Of those who attended, 69% were children under 12 and their accompanying parents. He added that strong 9 p.m. shows on Christmas also signaled strong interest from teens.

Clear skies for ‘Aviator’

Miramax distrib topper Mike Rudnitsky said polls on “Aviator” found an aud evenly split between men and women and said aud skewed slightly older.

“Your main draw for the movie is the story, Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio,” he said.

Dimension’s “Darkness” was a late addition to the Christmas sked. Pic had been on the shelf for more than three years. Marketing head Josh Greenstein said, “We’re thrilled because the movie (distrib rights) cost us $4 million and we also have rights for U.K. and Australia.”

Holiday holdovers

Results on Christmas-themed pics was mixed. Warners’ “The Polar Express” did fairly well, coming in at No. 7 with $6.3 million, down 25% from last week (cume: $140 million). Sony and Revolution’s “Christmas With the Kranks” was out of the top 10 with $3 million, down 44% (cume: $69.3 million).

Overall, Nielsen EDI estimated total receipts during the three-day span were $140 million, down a sharp 25% from last year (but last year’s Christmas weekend was the second biggest three-day frame in the history of the biz). “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” led the way in its second week with $50.6 million followed by the $27.6 million for newcomer “Cheaper by the Dozen.” In all, seven films grossed more than $10 million during the span.

This year’s frame was weakened because Christmas Eve, a very slow day at the wickets, fell on a Friday. Last year, frame started on Dec. 26.

The weak Christmas puts the 2004 box office in serious danger of finishing behind 2003 when EDI closes the books next Monday. Year-to-date, total box office stands at $8.901 billion, up a mere 0.5% over last year, when at this point receipts were $8.854 billion. At the beginning of the month, year-to-date figures had been more than 2% ahead of 2003.

EDI uses a calendar that starts the year on the first weekday after New Year’s Day.

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