'Benjamin Button' exceeds expectations

Twentieth Century Fox’s canine comedy “Marley and Me” was the surprise pick of the litter at the crowded Christmas box office — grossing a hefty $51.8 million for the long weekend — but there was plenty of coin to go around in one of the most prosperous holiday seasons ever for Hollywood.

Bonanza was largely fueled by older moviegoers — providing further evidence that fanboys are no longer the only demo that matters for B.O. and that older auds will be loyal filmgoers if given the right movies. It’s also a sign that Americans continue to turn to the bigscreen for comfort in bleak economic times, which they did even as holiday retail sales plunged.

Distributors were stunned by the level of traffic on Christmas Day, which is usually relatively light. Even the riskiest of the wide openers, UA/MGM’s Nazi drama “Valkyrie,” delivered.

“I’m in awe of how phenomenal Christmas was,” said Disney prexy of domestic distribution Chuck Viane. “How can you not be happy with these kind of numbers?”

“Marley,” starring Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson and based on the bestselling memoir about a family’s dog, nabbed the best Christmas Day opening ever. For the Friday-Sunday stretch, pic grossed $37 million from 3,480 runs, well exceeding expectations.

Paramount’s Brad Pitt-Cate Blanchett starrer “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” grabbed the second-best Christmas Day opening.

“Button,” on which Warner Bros. partnered, came in No. 2 overall for the four-day weekend (Thursday-Sunday), grossing an estimated $39 million from 2,988 screens.

For the three-day weekend, “Button” was beaten by Disney’s Adam Sandler comedy “Bedtime Stories” — which scored the third-best opening for Dec. 25 — and grossed an estimated $28.1 million to “Button’s” $27.2 million. “Bedtime’s” four-day total was an estimated $38.6 million.

And in a victory for United Artists and MGM, Bryan Singer’s Tom Cruise starrer “Valkyrie” grossed an estimated $30 million from 2,711 screens for the four days and $21.5 million for the three days. Pic placed No. 4.

The only soft debut of the sesh was for Lionsgate’s “The Spirit,” directed by Frank Miller. Pic grossed an estimated $10.4 million from 2,509 runs for the four days and $6.5 million for the three. Film came in No. 9.

On the specialty side, DreamWorks/Paramount Vantage’s “Revolutionary Road” boasted a boffo per-screen average of $62,000 as it opened Friday in three theaters, grossing an estimated $192,000.

Among wide holdovers, Warner Bros.’ Jim Carrey comedy “Yes Man” came in No. 5, posting a four-day gross of $22.4 million and a 10-day cume of $50 million. Laffer dipped only 10%.

Coming in No. 6, Sony’s Will Smith starrer “Seven Pounds” grossed an estimated $13.4 million for the four days for a cume of $39 million. Pic has so far underwhelmed given the hot streak that Smith has enjoyed at the box office. But like “Yes Man,” the drama dropped only 10%.

Before the weekend, there were concerns about whether the biz was taking too much of a risk in opening so many films over the holidays, including five on Dec. 25 alone.

“The fact that so many movies did so well was very encouraging to everyone in terms of the health of the theatrical market,” said Paramount vice chair Rob Moore.

Overall, weekend was up more than 10% over the same weekend last year, when tentpoles “National Treasure: Book of Secrets,” “Alvin and the Chipmunks” and “I Am Legend” dominated. Box office revs for 2008 continue to run almost even with last year’s record-breaking take, although attendance is down 3%. Warner Bros. leads in terms of market share. The studio is on pace to unseat Sony and score the best year ever.

Traffic did drop off throughout the weekend after the record-setting Christmas Day. Hollywood is counting on bringing in strong grosses this week and in the coming weekend to maintain pace with last year.

Heading into the weekend, most thought “Bedtime” would win the frame, as it is more of a broad family comedy than “Marley” and stars Sandler.

“Marley” did get families, but like “Button,” it played more to females, as well as to older moviegoers. Of “Marley’s” aud, 64% were women, while 62% were over age 25.

The big-budget “Button’s” demographic breakdown was somewhat similar, with an aud that was 60% female, 70% over age 25. Par expected the pic to skew older but was surprised that so many men turned out.

Christmas brings the best multiples of the year, meaning films can do four to five times their opening numbers. “Marley” could near, if not cross, the $100 million mark by the next weekend.

“This is a movie about life and love and family. That’s what people want to see,” said Fox senior VP of distribution Bert Livingston. “People from ages 8 to 80 came.”

“Benjamin Button,” from helmer David Fincher, has picked up a number of key award nominations. Its strong opening came despite a lengthy running time of roughly 2:45.

“Ultimately, it is what moviemaking is about,” Moore said. “It worked because it is unique and ambitious.”

“Bedtime,” meanwhile, counted on families for 69% of its aud. Pic was up the most on Saturday of any film.

Besides “Bedtime Stories,” the other strictly family film in the marketplace is Universal toon “The Tale of Despereaux,” which grossed a tidy $11.4 million from the four days from 3,107 to place No. 7. Pic, playing to tots, declined just 7% in its second weekend, with a cume of $28 million.

Also over the weekend, Disney’s “Bolt” jumped the $100 million mark at the domestic box office.

“Valkyrie,” which has been two years in the making, is only the second UA release since Tom Cruise and Paula Wagner took over the label (Wagner has since departed). First release was “Lions for Lambs,” toplining Cruise, Robert Redford and Meryl Streep. That film grossed only $15 million domestically.

“This film had a lot of obstacles to overcome, since it got a lot of bad press,” said MGM prexy of distribution Erik Loomis. “Bryan and Tom worked so hard; I’ve never seen someone work as hard as Tom did on this movie. The marketing team was fantastic, and the opening exceeded our expectations.”

In recent months, MGM exec VP of marketing Mike Vollman — working with consultant Terry Press — crafted a campaign for “Valkyrie” that positioned the film as an adult thriller.

“Valkyrie” played well to men. Of its aud, 55% were male. But, like many of the other titles, it played primarily (66%) to older auds.

Box office observers say “Valkyrie” took a bite out of “Spirit’s” aud.

While Lionsgate hoped for a bigger opening for “Spirit,” studio said the $10.4 million opening is still a win. Lionsgate produced and financed the movie with Odd Lot Entertainment.

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