'Precious' a gem with hot specialty tallies

While “Disney’s A Christmas Carol” (in the widest 3D release to date) saw a muted opening domestically and internationally, Lionsgate’s “Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire” scored a specialty record, with $1.8 million at only 18 runs in the U.S.

That averages to $100,000 per screen, a record for a film opening in under 50 theaters.

The Robert Zemeckis-directed “Christmas Carol” grossed an estimated $31 million from 3,683 runs domestically and $12 million from 2,750 playdates in 18 territories, led by the U.K. with $2.9 million. Most B.O. seers had expected the Jim Carrey topliner to open north of $35 million in the U.S. and nearer to $5 million in the U.K. alone.

Overseas, “Christmas Carol” was beat by Sony holdover “This Is It,” which grossed $29 million from 8,800 playdates in 110 territories for a foreign cume of $129 million in its second frame and worldwide total of $186.9 million. The Michael Jackson pic held up well, placing No. 2 in the U.S. by grossing $14 million from 3,481 runs to beat the three other new wide entries.

In the No. 3 slot was Overture Films’ George Clooney starrer “The Men Who Stare at Goats,” directed by Grant Heslov, which opened to $13.3 million from 2,443 theaters. Overture had a good weekend as its “Law Abiding Citizen,” in its fourth week, placed No. 8, with a cume of $60.9 million.

Coming in No. 4 was Universal’s Milla Jovovich sci-fi thriller “The Fourth Kind,” launching to a better-than-expected $12.5 million from 2,527 theaters. The pic was fully financed and produced by Gold Circle Films. (Farther down the chart, U laffer “Couples Retreat” achieved a major feat with a zero decline from the previous weekend, ending the frame with a cume of $96 million.)

Warner Bros.’ Cameron Diaz-James Marsden horror film “The Box” didn’t fare as well in its debut, grossing $7.9 million from 2,635 theaters to come in No. 6, behind Paramount’s sleeper blockbuster “Paranormal Activity.” Media Rights Capital financed all but $7.5 million of “The Box’s” $30 million production budget.

After flocking to theaters in record numbers for much of the fall, moviegoers held back this weekend. Ticket sales domestically were down 14% from the same frame last year, when Paramount/DreamWorks Animation’s “Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa” opened to $63.1 million and U’s comedy “Role Models” debuted to $19.2 million.

“Christmas Carol’s” bow included more that 2,000 3D screens. Generally 3D titles tend to over-perform because of the added charge for 3D tickets. Disney underscored that “Christmas Carol” marked Zemeckis’ best domestic opening to date, besting “Polar Express” ($23.3 million for Warner Bros.) and, more recently, “Beowulf” ($27.5 million for Paramount).

“Christmas Carol” did 50% more opening biz that “Polar Express” did overseas, and “Polar Express” ended up grossing $304.9 million worldwide.

Disney prexy of domestic distribution Chuck Viane shrugged off the “Carol” naysayers: “They said all the same things about ‘Polar Express.’ We had to get positioned and open now. Bob Zemeckis has done it again. He doubled the gross of his closest competitor this weekend, and we are looking forward to a very long run. I think people are truly enamored with what he puts on the bigscreen.”

The film did well on the 181 Imax screens, which turned in $4.5 million, or 14.5% of the opening weekend gross, according to Imax Filmed Entertainment prexy Greg Foster said. That beat the previous record, which was 8% for both Sony’s “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs” and “Monsters vs. Aliens.”

Disney predicts the pic will have long legs since there’s not another 3D title until 20th Century Fox’s “Avatar” debuts Dec. 18. Both pics were pricey to produce, as both James Cameron and Zemeckis push the boundaries of new technology. Rival studios put the pricetag of “Christmas Carol” at $180 million, meaning the Mouse House needs sizeable B.O. returns. Disney historically won’t comment on a film’s budget.

Of the aud turning out domestically, 51% were under the age of 25. Teens made up 15% of the aud.

Outside of the domestic market, Mexico stood out in delivering $1.8 million from 605 playdates, a strong result for that territory. Next weekend, pic expands into Japan, Spain and Colombia.

And aside from the family audience, there other demos being targeted in the next few weeks — notably femmes with Summit Entertainment’s “Twilight Saga: The New Moon,” opening Nov. 20.

Picked up at the Sundance Film Festival in January, “Precious” tells the troubling, but ultimately redemptive, story of an obese teenager (played by newcomer Gabourey “Gabby” Sadibe) struggling with her life in Harlem. The pic no doubt got a major boost when Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry signed on as exec producers after Sundance to lend their names and clout to help market the pic.

“When you hit these kind of figures, you are playing across the board. The challenge was getting people to come in to the theater. We are hearing stories from that people didn’t want to leave the auditorium because they wanted to decompress,” Lionsgate prexy of distribution David Spitz said.

The previous record-holder for screen average was Paramount Vantage’s “There Will be Blood,” which grossed $190,739 when opening on two screens for an average of $95,370. The audience for “Precious” was 68% female and roughly 50% black.

Lionsgate opened the pic in a mix of arthouse theaters and theaters in African-American neighborhoods in Los Angeles, Gotham, Atlanta and Chicago.

In L.A., for instance, film played at the Arclight, the Landmark in West L.A., the AMC Magic Johnson Crenshaw 15 and the Bridge Cinemas, which draws all races.

Sony Pictures Classics’ “Coco Before Chanel” jumped the $4 million mark, grossing $604,906 from 301 runs for a cume of $4.2 million in its seventh week.

Among openers, Frederick Wiseman’s “La Dense” grossed $14,000 from one run in New York (the Film Forum) for a five-day opening cume of $21,220.

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