Fox film enjoys biggest opening of the year

Twentieth Century Fox’s “Dr. Seuss’ Horton Hears a Who!” rang up a who-latious $45.1 million at the domestic box office — the biggest opening so far in 2008 — furthering Fox’s successful foray into the animated and family market.

“Horton,” toplining the voices of Jim Carrey and Steve Carell, also drew the fifth-best debut of all time for a G-rated toon — a category dominated by Disney/Pixar — and gave Carrey his best opening in nearly five years. Animated feature scored the fourth-best March bow ever after “300″ and Fox’s PG toons “Ice Age” and sequel “Ice Age: The Meltdown.”

Like the “Ice Age” pics, “Horton” was produced by CGI animator Blue Sky Studios, which Fox owns.

“It’s a who-mongous opening,” Fox senior VP of distribution Chris Aronson said. “Blue Sky has made a film that makes you feel like you are immersed in the pages of Dr. Seuss’ world. It is colorful and vibrant, and so true to his work.

Elsewhere at the box office, Summit Entertainment said it scored a victory with mixed martial arts drama “Never Back Down,” which grossed an estimated $8.6 million from 2,729 runs to place No. 3 for the frame after “Horton” and Warner Bros.’ holdover “10,000 BC,” according to Rentrak. “Never Back Down,” which cost $20 million to produce, is the first inhouse production released by Summit’s new distribution arm.

“Never Back Down” finished far ahead of Universal/Rogue Pictures’ horror title “Doomsday” despite predictions of a close race. “Doomsday,” directed by Neil Marshall, grossed an estimated $4.7 million from 1,926 theaters in its debut to place No. 7 for the weekend. It is the first Rogue title released by Universal since Rogue came under the U, instead of Focus Features, banner.

Led by “Horton,” the weekend brought some relief to studios and other distribs in recording an 8.5% uptick over the same frame last year, according to Media by Numbers. Domestic box office had been running behind last year for five weekends in a row, although the year overall is up from 2007.

After “Horton,” the next biggest opening so far in 2008 was Paramount’s “Cloverfield,” which bowed to $40 million in January. On March 7, “10,000 BC” debuted to $35.9 million. Over the weekend, the Roland Emmerich pic came in No. 2, declining 54% to an estimated $16.4 million from 3,410 runs for a cume of $61.2 million in its second sesh.

With kids starting to get out of school for the Easter break, Fox took “Horton” out in 3,954, a number usually reserved for summer. Film, based on Dr. Seuss’ 1954 book of the same name, cost roughly $85 million to produce and marks Carrey’s first starring voice role in a toon.

Despite its G rating, “Horton” almost matched the opening of “Ice Age” — which bowed to $46.1 million from 3,361. Generally speaking, opening a G-rated film can be risky, with older kids and teens not wanting to go to a movie that skews too young.

Disney and Pixar films have been an exception to this rule, appealing to all audiences. “Horton” showed signs of doing the same in drawing an aud that was 53% families — i.e., parents and their kids — and 47% unaccompanied teens and adults. Of that 47%, 40% were teens.

Pixar/Disney boasts the top four G-rated toons in terms of opening weekend: “Finding Nemo” ($70.2 million), Monsters, Inc.” ($62.6 million), “Cars” ($60.1 million) and “Ratatouille” ($47 million). All except “Monsters,” which debuted in November, opened in the summer.

“Horton,” however, couldn’t match Carrey starrer “Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” which opened to $55.1 million in 2000. “Horton” did beat Mike Myers starrer “Dr. Seuss’ The Cat in the Hat,” which debuted to $38.3 million. Neither of the first two Dr. Seuss pics was animated.

“Horton” was the final movie shepherded by Chris Meledandri before ankling as head of 20th Century Fox Animation to take charge of Universal’s new animated film division. It was Meledandri who helped engineer the Blue Sky acquisition.

Family films have strong playability, with “Horton” well positioned to take advantage of the staggered Easter holiday, according to Aronson.

Fox’s “Alvin and the Chipmunks” bowed in mid-December to $44.3 million on its way to grossing more than $214 million domestically. “Ice Age” grossed $176.4 million domestically and “Ice Age: The Meltdown” $195.3 million.

Meanwhile, “Back Down,” starring Sean Fairs, Amber Heard and Djimon Hounsou, performed on the strength of young males, according to Summit, distribution prexy Richard Fay and other top execs.

“To be No. 3 is pretty much where we expected to be. We certainly hit the market we targeted,” Fay said. “From the greenlight process to the theater, this is the first Summit movie we’ve had. We obviously watched it very closely. I’ve had two children, and this was like having a third.”

Some 60% of the aud consisted of males under 21.

Also in their second frames were Disney’s Martin Lawrence starrer “College Road Trip” and Lionsgate crime actioner “The Bank Job.”

Placing a solid No. 4 for the weekend, “Road Trip” declined 42% to an estimated $7.9 million from 2,706 theaters; cume is $24.3 million.

“Bank Job” enjoyed one of the strongest holds in recent months, declining a slim 17% to an estimated $4.9 million from 1,613, good enough for No. 6. Cume is $13.1 million.

Coming in No. 5 between “Road Trip” and “Bank Job” was Sony political thriller “Vantage Point,” which continued its strong box office run, declining 27% in its fifth frame to an estimated $5.4 million from 2,761 for a cume of $59.2 million.

The specialty side was quiet. Warner Independent Pictures’ suspenser “Funny Games,” toplining Naomi Watts and Tim Roth, grossed an estimated $520,000 in its debut in 289 locations for a per-screen average of $1,799. Overture Films’ “Sleepwalking,” starring Charlize Theron, Nick Stahl and AnnaSophia Robb, grossed an estimated $50,000 from 30 runs for a per-screen average of $1,667.

Among holdovers, Focus Features’ “Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day” came in No. 12 overall for the weekend in its second sesh, declining 22% to an estimated $1.9 million from 539 for a cume of $5.3 million.

Warner Independent’s “Snow Angels” snagged the second-best per-theater average of the weekend after “Horton” ($11,406), grossing an estimated $26,000 from three runs for a per-screen average of $8,667 in its second sesh for a cume of $45,470.

Slowhand Releasing’s “Little Chenier” grossed $2,500 from one theater in West Hollywood for a cume of $114,588.

Oscar foreign-language pic winner “The Counterfeiters,” from Sony Pictures Classics, grossed an estimated $450,769 from 211 locations for a per-screen average of $6,261 and a cume of $1.2 million in its fourth frame.

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