'27 Dresses' finds fit with audiences

Beauty and the beast made the weekend box office look more like summer than the heart of winter as Paramount’s “Cloverfield” enjoyed a monstrous debut of $41 million — the best January opening ever — and 20th Century Fox’s romantic comedy “27 Dresses” fit like a glove in bowing at $22.4 million.

Brad Grey’s Paramount needed a hit of its own, and “Cloverfield” more than delivered. The innovative monster pic, produced on a shoestring budget of $25 million, saw the studio’s 10th best opening of all time.

With the four-day Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend, Par and Fox are basking in the fact that today should bring strong box office grosses as well. “Cloverfield” is playing in 3,411 theaters, “Dresses” in 3,057.

It is unprecedented for two films to open so well on the same weekend this time of year, even on the extended Martin Luther King Jr. holiday frame. Studios can see solid business during the month, but none has ever seen in January the sort of eye-popping grosses enjoyed by “Cloverfield.”

“Dresses,” featuring “Grey’s Anatomy” star Katherine Heigl and James Marsden, is the eighth best January opener ever, underscoring the love affair that effective counterprogramming can enjoy at the box office. Like “Cloverfield,” “Dresses” was modestly budgeted, having cost partners Fox 2000 and Spyglass Entertainment under $30 million to produce.

The weekend’s other wide opener was Diane Keaton-Queen Latifah-Katie Holmes starrer “Mad Money,” the first film distributed by Chris McGurk and Danny Rosett’s Overture Films. Female-skewing crime caper grossed an estimated $7.7 million from 2,470 locations, placing No. 7 for the frame.

Overall, the domestic box office was up a whopping 19% from the 2007 King holiday weekend, when Sony’s “Stomp the Yard” opened at $21.8 million, according to Media by Numbers estimates.

“Cloverfield” annihilated all expectations. Paramount had been concerned that “27 Dresses” would lure all the young women, but more than enough turned out for “Cloverfield.”

“Cloverfield” couldn’t come at a better time for Grey, whose studio largely relied on DreamWorks titles to fuel its perf last year, while most of its own titles languished at the domestic box office. All along, Grey and his team have insisted to naysayers that 2008 will be a much stronger year for Par proper.

Movie’s perf is another important notch on the belt for Abrams, who has a lucrative first-look film deal with Par. Filmmaker is reviving the “Star Trek” franchise for the studio.

It also speaks to the success of Paramount’s viral marketing campaign for “Cloverfield,” a campaign that included keeping the movie’s name and plot under wraps for months.

“I think this movie defines what we want to do at Paramount. It is a movie that took a big creative risk,” Par vice chair Rob Moore said. “We really wanted to be in business with J.J. and his team, who came up with a really creative execution. And the marketing and distribution team were able to execute a great campaign.”

Sporting no big stars, “Cloverfield” was shot to resemble a homevideo. Most of the production budget went to special effects.

Excluding the January 1997 re-release of “Star Wars,” which saw an opening weekend take of $35.9 million, the previous record-holder for best January opener was “Big Momma’s House 2,” which debuted at $27.73 million in January 2006. “Along Came Polly” — which debuted over the King holiday weekend in 2004 — is next at $27.72 million.

Heading into the weekend, tracking had suggested that “Cloverfield” and “27 Dresses,” both rated PG-13, would finish much closer to one another, since “Cloverfield” was showing weakness among women. It also served Par’s purposes to manage expectations and underplay the film’s potential, a strategy all the studios employ from time to time.

“Cloverfield drew far more femmes than anticipated, with the pic’s aud about 60% male and 40% female; 55% of the aud was over age 25.

Moore said moviegoers over 25 were a big reason why “Cloverfield” exceeded expectations. The viral marketing campaign got mainstream moviegoers talking about the movie, in addition to stoking the interest of the fanboy target demo, Moore said.

Like other movies appealing heavily to younger males, who generally turn out for opening night, “Cloverfield” saw a Friday-to-Saturday drop of roughly 19%. “Dresses” was up 10%.

“Dresses,” also starring Ed Burns, drew an audience that was 75% female. It was also a strong draw among younger moviegoers, with 50% of the aud under age 25.

“Audiences went shopping for ’27 Dresses’ all across North America,” Fox senior VP of distribution Chris Aronson said. “It’s almost like a summer weekend when you have two pics targeting two different audiences that can expand the marketplace and both open successfully.”

Fox enjoyed similar counterprogramming success when opening “The Devil Wears Prada” opposite “Superman Returns” in summer 2006.

In plugging “Dresses,” Fox’s marketing mavens also focused heavily on building word of mouth, holding two different sneaks for the film and building media campaigns that played off the movie’s “never a bride, always a bridesmaid” theme.

It was only several weeks ago that Fox decided to delay the release of “Dresses” by one week to Jan. 18 in order to give Fox Searchlight’s “Juno” more elbow room. Neither Par nor Overture was happy with the move.

Overture prexy of worldwide marketing and distribution Peter Adee said the movie held its ground.

“We feel good about the number. We did have some very heavyweight competition. When all is said and done, we will make money,” Adee said.

Overture paid between $5 million to $7 million to acquire domestic distribution rights to “Mad Money.” Pic should ultimately gross at least $25 million.

Movie’s aud was 75% female, although it skewed older, with 75% of the overall aud over age 30. Adee said the movie performed particularly well in the Southwest and in suburban markets.

Elsewhere on the weekend’s top 10 chart, Warner Bros.’ Jack Nicholson-Morgan Freeman showed a good hold in its second weekend in wide release. The film, placing No. 3 after coming in No. 1 last weekend, grossed an estimated $15.1 million from 2,915 theaters for a narrow decline of 22%. Cume is $42.7 million.

Searchlight’s “Juno” stayed high on the chart. Pic weighed in at No. 4, grossing an estimated $10.2 million from 2,534 theaters for a decline of 25% and boffo cume of $85.4 million.

Taking the No. 5 spot was Disney sequel “National Treasure: Book of Secrets,” which should cross the $200 million mark domestically on Monday. Over the weekend, the movie grossed an estimated $8.1 million from 2,963 theaters, down 28% in its fifth frame. Cume is $198 million.

Sony-Screen Gems’ “First Sunday” declined 56% in its second frame to an estimated $7.8 million from 2,213 locations for a cume of $28.5 million. Pic placed No. 6.

Fox’s “Alvin and the Chipmunks” is nearing the $200 million mark as well. Pic, coming in No. 8, declined 25% in its sixth frame to an estimated $7 million from 2,952 theaters for a cume of $196.4 million.

Warners’ “I Am Legend” came in No. 9, declining 38% to an estimated $5.1 million from 2,525 runs for a cume of $247.7 million in its sixth frame.

Focus Features’ “Atonement” placed No. 10 for the weekend, grossing an estimated $4.7 million from 1,291; cume is $31.9 million in its seventh frame.

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