'Solace' grosses $70.4 million at box office

Hollywood let out a collective sigh of relief as moviegoers set aside worries about the economy to deliver a $70.4 million opening for Sony/MGM’s “Quantum of Solace,” the biggest opening ever for a James Bond title and a major victory for a film franchise nearly half a century old.

Previous record-holder for best Bond opening was the $47.1 million for “Die Another Day.” Director Marc Forster’s “Solace,” playing in 3,451 runs, opened 74% higher than the 2006 critically acclaimed “Casino Royale,” which gave a new look and feel to the Bond franchise, as well as a new 007–Daniel Craig.

The specialty side also made headlines over the weekend. Fox Searchlight’s “Slumdog Millionaire” scored the best location average of the year among specialty titles and the fourth best of the year among all titles. Film grossed an estimated $350,434 from 10 theaters for a per-screen average of $35,043 and a cume of $418,131. (It opened Wednesday.)

Weekend was up a staggering 50% over the same frame last year on the strength of “Quantum of Solace” and several holdovers, led by “Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa,” which jumped the $100 million in its second weekend, according to Rentrak.

“Madagascar” sequel declined 43% to an estimated $36.1 million from 4,065 runs for a cume of $118 million. Universal’s R-rated laffer “Role Models” also continued to surprise with its popularity, declining only 39% in its second weekend to an estimated $11.7 million from 2,798 theaters; cume is $38.1 million.

Competing studios applauded the “Quantum of Solace” performance as a sign that the box office is withstanding the current economic crisis. The Bond pic tied with “The Incredibles” for the fourth best opening in the month of November. The “Harry Potter” franchise owns the first three spots.

Meanwhile, “Quantum of Solace” continues its worldwide domination. Through Sunday, pic had earned an estimated $251.6 million at the international B.O. for a worldwide total of $322 million. Craig’s second outing as Agent 007 began rolling out internationally over the Oct. 31-Nov. 2 weekend.

“I think Daniel Craig works in a big way,” Sony prexy of domestic distribution Rory Bruer said. “There’s no doubt about it, ‘Solace’ hit it out of the park.”

Box observers believe “Quantum of Solace,” produced by Bond home Eon Prods., will have no trouble eclipsing “Casino Royale’s” $167.4 domestic cume and $426.8 international total. Unlike “Casino Royale,” “Quantum of Solace” wasn’t well reviewed.

Pic’s domestic opening is more impressive for the fact that it played to an older crowd. Some 58% of the aud were over age 25. As with other Bond titles, “Quantum of Solace” skewed male, or 54%. Sony insiders put the pic’s production budget at $200 million; others put it well higher.

The 22nd official Bond pic ends Sony’s involvement with the franchise, with MGM taking over completely.

The Bond franchise had grown up at United Artists but came into the MGM fold when the Lion bought UA. It fell into Sony’s hands when Sony and a consortium of investors bought MGM.

“Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa” gives DreamWorks Animation only its second franchise after “Shrek.”

“We’re optimistic that we’ll play through Thanksgiving and into the Christmas holiday,” said Anne Globe, DreamWorks Animation prexy of worldwide marketing.

“Escape 2 Africa” will get competition on Friday when Disney bows 3-D toon “Bolt.” Also, tween and teenage girls will be devoting their attention to Summit Entertainment’s “Twilight,” based on the wildly successful book series. “Twilight” also opens Friday.

Disney sneaked “Bolt” Saturday in roughly 880 theaters. Mouse House said shows were at 74% capacity.

Elsewhere over the weekend, Dimension/MGM’s comedy “Soul Men” continued to struggle. Laffer fell 55% in its second weekend to an estimated $2.4 million from 2,048 theaters; pic landed at No. 7. Cume is $9.4 million in its first 10 days.

Dimension Films/the Weinstein Co. are faring better with Kevin Smith’s “Zack and Miri Make a Porno,” which came in No. 6 in its third weekend. Film declined 49% to an estimated $3.2 million from 2,210 for a cume of $26.5 million.

Clint Eastwood’s period drama “Changeling” placed No. 5, declining 41% to an estimated $4.2 million from 1,896 for a cume of $27.6 million in its fourth sesh.

Slipping least among the weekend’s top 10 films was Fox Searchlight’s “The Secret Life of Bees,” which declined 22% in its fifth sesh to an estimated $2.4 million from 1,449 runs; cume is $33.7 million.

Searchlight, which had struggled post-Oscars, is suddenly coming back into the spotlight.

Specialty division just announced in September that it was taking over domestic distribution of “Slumdog Millionaire” from Warner Bros; the film had been made for Warner Independent Pictures. Pic isn’t an easy sell in the U.S.: It’s set in India, and part of it is subtitled. What’s more, Searchlight had little time to fashion a media campaign.

“Our marketing team did a great job,” Searchlight VP Sheila DeLoach said. “There’s also great word of mouth. The audience loves the movie, and people are going to discover this little gems for months.”

Pic came in No. 1 in every theater that wasn’t playing “Quantum of Solace.” Pathe is handling international sales on “Slumdog Millionaire.”

“Slumdog Millionaire” marks the beginning of a busy stretch for the specialty biz, which has held off releasing many of its award contenders until now, looking to take advantage of the Thanksgiving-Christmas stretch.

Among other new specialty releases, IFC’s French film “A Christmas Tale” opened to an estimated $63,000 from seven runs for a per-screen average of $9,000.

Miramax holdover “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas” posted a strong per location average of $12,895 in its second weekend, grossing an estimated $490,000 as it expanded to 28 locations for a cume of $843,000. In marketing the Holocaust drama, Miramax has targeted faith-based groups and Jewish orgs.

Sony Pictures Classics’ “I’ve Loved You So Long” posted a per-screen average of $6,067 in its fourth sesh, grossing $175,944 from 29 locations for a cume of $1 million.

The Christian-themed “Fireproof,” from Samuel Goldwyn Films/IDP, crossed the $30 million threshold in its eighth week, grossing $1.3 million from 862 locations for a cume of $20.2 million.

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