Sandler comedy beats boy wizard at box office

In a close box office contest, Universal’s “I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry” appears to have narrowly yukked its way past Warner Bros. holdover “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix” for the weekend crown, while New Line’s “Hairspray” sang as the best musical opening on record.

“Chuck and Larry,” starring Adam Sandler and Kevin James, made an estimated $34.8 million from 3,495 locations domestically, while “Phoenix” made $32.2 million from 4,285 theaters in its second frame for a cume of $207.5 million. Warners said the release of the book “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows” at 12:01 a.m. Saturday likely dampened the movie’s perf, with Potter fans otherwise occupied over the weekend reading the final tome in J.K. Rowling’s series versus making a beeline for the multiplex.

“Hairspray” made an estimated $27.8 million from 3,121 locations, far outpacing predictions that it would gross somewhere around $20 million. Pic, based on the hit Broadway musical, which in turn was based on the 1988 John Waters movie, stars John Travolta and newcomer Nikki Blonsky.

All in all, the July box office continued to hum along. Moviegoers still relished their available choices, with top holdovers like “Transformers,” “Ratatouille” and “Live Free or Die Hard” still finding no trouble filling theaters.

Weekend box office was up an estimated 5% over the same frame last year, when “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest” led in its third frame and several wide newcomers failed to wow, including “Lady in the Water.”

Overseas, “Phoenix” finished the weekend with a cume of $351.3 million, putting worldwide box office receipts at a hefty $558.8 million.

“I’m very pleased with the performance over the weekend,” Warner Bros. prexy of distribution Dan Fellman said.

Pic dipped 58% domestically in its second frame, the greatest drop of the five Potter pics after “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban,” which dipped 63% in its second frame. They were the only two Potter pics to be released in the summer.

Rowling’s “Deathly Hallows” was released just 10 days after “Phoenix’s” July 11 bow. It’s the first time a Potter book has been released so near to one of the movies. In 2005, “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince” came out in July; Warners released “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire” in November.

Fellman said it was difficult to say how much the book hurt the box office.

“I can’t put a number on it, whether it is 3% or 5%, but I know it affected things,” Fellman said. “There is no question that when kids get the book, they lock themselves in their rooms until they finish, because they know on Monday, every kid is going to know who made it, and who didn’t, and they want to know it first.”

Fellman said the book’s release date — set independently of the movie’s — was one of the reasons why the studio decided so late in the game to move up the opening of “Phoenix” from a Friday to a Wednesday.

At the same time, Fellman pointed out that the movie was bound to take a sizable drop, book or no book, considering its big opening numbers.

Once again proving Sandler’s ability to open a comedy, “Chuck and Larry” gave Universal its third laffer on the weekend top 10 list after “Knocked Up” and “Evan Almighty.”

“We are on our way to another $100 million comedy for Adam, and another $100 million comedy for the studio,” U distribution chief Nikki Rocco said.

“Chuck and Larry,” about two firemen who pretend to be gay in order to get domestic partner benefits, is the eighth Sandler pic to open at No. 1, although it opened smaller than many of Sandler’s other comedies, including last year’s “Click,” which debuted at $40 million, and “The Longest Yard” in 2005, which opened at $47.6 million, his best bow to date.

Rocco said this was a much more competitive frame.

Success of “Chuck and Larry” and “Knocked Up” — which, despite being in its eighth frame, dropped only 37% — helps to make up for the disappointing perf of “Evan,” billed as the most expensive comedy ever made.

“Evan,” coming in No. 9, made $2.4 million from 1,779 locations for a cume of $92.4 million. “Knocked Up” came in No. 10, taking in $2.3 million from 1,288 locations for a cume of $142.7 million.

New Line prexy of distribution David Tuckerman said “Hairspray” worked so well because it is “terrific entertainment.” As predicted, a large portion of the aud was female, but he noted that more than 30% was male.

“This is a peculiar movie where males don’t want to go, but once they get in there, they love the movie. That’s positive,” Tuckerman said.

The 1982 “Best Little Whorehouse in Texas” previously held the record for best opening for a musical, at $11 million. “Rent,” released in 2005, was next best at $10 million. Recent musicals like “Chicago” and “Dreamgirls” all opened in limited runs.

Perf of “Hairspray” is a needed boost for New Line, whose most recent releases have been underperformers, including “Fracture” and “The Number 23.” Studio is expected to have another crowdpleaser with “Rush Hour 3,” which opens next month.

Over the weekend, Michael Moore’s docu “Sicko” fell to No. 11, putting studio pics in full charge of the top 10 list, although “Sicko” continued to display good health in taking only a 26% dip. Film, which Lionsgate is distributing for the Weinstein Co., made an estimated $1.9 million from 1,117 locations, boosting its cume to $19.1 million.

New entries among limited runs included Fox Searchlight’s “Sunshine,” which made an estimated $235,477 from 10 locations for a per-screen average of $23,548. Samuel Goldwyn’s “Goya’s Ghosts” made an estimated $166,000 from 49 theaters for a per-screen average of $3,400.

Focus Features saw a healthy per-screen average of $9,491 for Don Cheadle starrer “Talk to Me,” which made an estimated $341,691 from 36 theaters in its second frame for a cume of $895,300.

MGM’s “Rescue Dawn” made an estimated $354,102 from 57 locations for a per-screen average of $6,212 and a cume of $1.1 million. Pic expands to 500 locations Friday.

Of the top 10 pics, DreamWorks-Paramount’s “Transformers,” which came in No. 4, made an estimated $20.5 million from 3,762 locations in its third frame for a cume of nearly $263 million. Film dropped 45%.

Moviegoers continued to feast on Disney-Pixar’s “Ratatouille,” which made $11 million from 3,402 theaters in its fourth frame for a cume of $165.2 million. Toon, which came in No. 5, dipped 39%.

Also in its fourth frame, 20th Century Fox’s Bruce Willis actioner “Live Free or Die Hard” grossed $7.3 million from 2,727 locations for a cume of $116.5 million. Pic dropped 35%.

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