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‘Legend’ lands legendary opening

'Chipmunks' surpasses all expectations

Warner Bros.’ Will Smith starrer “I Am Legend” scored the best December opening of all time with $76.5 million over the weekend, while Fox’s live-action/CGI hybrid “Alvin and the Chipmunks” surpassed all expectations in debuting at an estimated $45 million.

Films combined to jolt the box office to record standing after a sluggish fall, with the frame up as much as 37% over the same weekend last year, guaranteeing 2007 will now finish ahead of 2006 at the B.O. with room to spare — despite claims that moviegoing is on the decline.

It also showed that auds apparently wanted to avoid holiday shopping.

“It was the perfect storm of two pictures coming into the marketplace that everyone wanted to see,” Fox senior VP of distribution Chris Aronson said.

Biz was likewise buoyant on the specialty side, as Miramax’s “No Country for Old Men” moved up to No. 5 overall, and Focus Features’ “Atonement” landed at No. 9 in its second week in release, playing at only 117 locations and posting an impressive per-screen average of $15,835.

One film unable to ride the rush was New Line’s big-budget fantasy epic “The Golden Compass,” which slid 65% in its second frame to an estimated $9 million from 3,528 runs for a cume of $41 million in the pic’s first 10 days of release, according to Rentrak. Film’s weak performance at the domestic box office could prove a major blow for New Line, which spent at least $180 million to make “Compass” in hopes of launching a new franchise.

It turns out “Legend,” a Warners-Village Roadshow co-production on 3,606 runs, was the pic that acted like a franchise installment, even though the sci-fi zombie thriller is a standalone pic.

Proving Smith’s status as one of the world’s most bankable stars, “Legend” posted the sort of opening numbers reserved for summer tentpoles, as well as besting all three “The Lord of the Rings” films, each of which also opened near Christmas.

Like “Alvin” (3,475 playdates), “Legend” wasn’t predicted to come in with such a boffo opening number. Both studios credit their respective domestic marketing teams for taking two titles from yesteryear and turning them into event titles.

“The market can certainly expand when there is interest,” said Warner prexy of distribution Dan Fellman. “For a non-franchise movie, it’s the best opening we’ve ever had. And we are well-positioned to play through the Christmas holiday“Legend” is the new master of the Christmas frame, beating out previous record-holder “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King,” which opened to $72.6 million in December 2003. “Legend” is the 16th-highest opener of all time. In terms of this year, “Legend” is the top opener since July’s “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix,” which made $77.1 million its first weekend.

“Legend’s” perf also speaks to the continued fan base for Richard Matheson’s 1954 classic tome of the same name, which has been adapted into two previous features, Charlton Heston starrer “The Omega Man” and Vincent Price starrer “The Last Man on Earth.”

The pic also scored the best December opening for megascreen exhib Imax. Of the $76.5 million opening gross, $3.4 million came from 77 Imax screens.

Overall, audience split for “Legend” was 57% males and 43% females, in line with studio’s expectations. In terms of age, Fellman said the aud was divided evenly among people over the age of 25, and those under.

“Alvin,” based on another property dating back to the 1950s, also made box office history and could easily be spawned into a new Fox film franchise. Pic is a Fox 2000/New Regency co-production.

Showing strength across all age groups, “Alvin” enjoyed the second-highest December opening ever for a film rated G or PG after Disney’s “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” which opened to $65.5 million in 2005. “Alvin” is the eighth highest-grossing December film ever, and places in the top 20 of all-time best openings for family friendly films.

“Alvin and the Chipmunks” were created by Ross Bagdasarian as a novelty musical recording group before being adapted into a TV toon. Feature film adaptation cost less than $60 million to produce.

Aronson said the Fox marketing team did “a fantastic job in creating chipmunk fever, thereby not only reacquainting those already familiar with ‘Alvin and the Chipmunks,’ but introducing a whole new generation to those loveable furballs.”

Reflecting its cross-generational appeal, the audience was fairly evenly split between families and non-families. Families made up 53% of the aud. Among genders, the movie skewed slightly female.

“Alvin” continues Fox’s stronghold on the Christmas family market; last year, Fox released “Night at the Museum” to $30.4 million over the holiday.

This fall, the domestic box office has been consistently running behind last year, eroding the gains made during the record-breaking summer, although year-to-year, the box office was still up by 4% heading into the Dec. 14-16 frame. On the same weekend last year, Sony’s Will Smith drama “Pursuit of Happyness” opened to $26.5 million, while Fox’s “Eragon” opened at $23.2 million and Paramount’s “Charlotte’s Web,” $11.4 million.

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Elsewhere over the frame, Disney’s princess tale “Enchanted” continued to sing happily, declining 44% in its fourth weekend to an estimated $6 million from 3,066 theaters for a cume of $92.3 million.

Yari Film Group’s “The Perfect Holiday” had trouble rallying in its bow, placing No. 6 with an estimated gross of $3 million from 1,307.

Holdovers “Fred Claus,” from Warners, and Sony’s “This Christmas” stayed on the top 10 list, placing No. 7 and No. 8, respectively. Family title “August Rush” placed No. 10, giving WB three films in the top 10 chart.

Paramount’s 3-D epic “Beowulf” fell off the top 10 list in its fifth weekend, as “Legend” gobbled up Imax screens.

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