‘Gran Torino’ wins box office race

Clint Eastwood film grosses $29 million

Going full throttle at the B.O., Clint Eastwood’s “Gran Torino” grossed $29 million from 2,808 locations to win the weekend and rack up Eastwood’s best nationwide opening of all time, both as an actor and director.

Despite bad weather in the Northeast and Midwest, where theater traffic dropped precipitously on Saturday, “Gran Torino” wasn’t the only hot rod on the box office highway.

Twentieth Century Fox’s Kate Hudson-Anne Hathaway comedy “Bride Wars” outpaced expectations, debuting at No. 2 and grossing an estimated $21.5 million from 3,226 runs, according to Rentrak. Pic’s successful opening follows Fox’s Christmas hit “Marley and Me.”

Relativity/Universal’s “The Unborn” scared up an impressive $21.1 million from 2,357 playdates. The Rogue Pictures title scored the best January opening for a horror title after Lionsgate’s “Hostel” ($19.6 million in 2005).

“The Unborn” perf marks a fortuitous start for Relativity’s acquisition of Rogue. Under the pact — finalized last week — U will release all Rogue titles and take a distribution fee.

Sony’s urban faith-based pic “Not Easily Broken” opened to an estimated $5.6 million from 724 for a per-screen average of $7,735.

Overall, ticket sales were up as much as 15% over the same frame last year, fueled by the new entries, along with a successful crop of holiday holdovers, such as “Marley and Me” and Paramount’s “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” which came in Nos. 4 and 5, respectively.

There was also a flurry of interest in specialty films as moviegoers tried to get caught up on awards contenders in advance of Sunday’s Golden Globe telecast.

Heading into the weekend, “Torino” had been expected to take the weekend crown. Pic was mostly snubbed by Golden Globe voters — it earned noms for original score (composed by Eastwood) and original song — but Eastwood had the satisfaction of winning the B.O. on the eve of the awards.

In recent years Eastwood has become one of Hollywood’s most prolific filmmakers. He helmed two films in 2007, “Flags of Our Fathers” and “Letters From Iwo Jima,” and two last year, “Gran Torino” and “Changeling.”

“Gran Torino” is by far the most successful of the bunch. Amassing $11 million during its monthlong limited run for a cume to date of $40.1 million, it is doing stronger business even than “Mystic River” or Oscar best picture winner “Million Dollar Baby,” which also began in limited runs before opening nationwide.

“We knew ‘Gran Torino’ had a very strong commercial component, but we wanted some breathing room, to build word of mouth and let critics know what the movie was about,” said Warners prexy of domestic distribution Dan Fellman. “By pressing the button and going wide immediately, you can’t take advantage of great reviews and word of mouth. It was a little bit of a risk, but it paid off.”

Fellman said strong word of mouth and a targeted marketing campaign drew the interest of younger moviegoers in addition to older demos.

“Gran Torino,” which pays homage to Eastwood’s classic “Dirty Harry” character to some extent, played surprisingly well among females. Women made up 52% of the audience. A full 40% of the aud were over age 50, while 25% were under age 25.

“The movie broadened out, and it will become Clint’s biggest-grossing movie of all time,” Fellman said.

Eastwood’s top-grossing film as a director is “Unforgiven” ($101.2 million). As an actor, his record holder is 1993’s “In the Line of Fire” ($102.2 million). “Gran Torino” should end up somewhere north of $120 million, if not $130 million.

Both “Gran Torino” and “Bride Wars” received top marks in exit polls despite the mostly critical reviews for “Bride Wars.”

Not surprisingly, the aud for “Bride Wars” was 80% female. It played slightly younger, guaranteeing plenty of repeat viewings.

” ‘Bride Wars’ caught the bouquet at the weekend box office, and once again, the audience spoke louder than the critics. Perhaps the critics should listen more to audiences,” Fox senior VP of distribution Chris Aronson said.

Film stood to do good business on Sunday, while films relying on male eyeballs had to compete with NFL playoffs.

On Saturday, due to winter storms, box office was down 31% in New York, 17% in Philadelphia and 23% in Detroit.

“It hurt everybody, but it still turned out to be a great weekend,” Aronson said.

Another plus: The four new wide entries all had modest production budgets. “Gran Torino” cost roughly $33 million to produce, “Bride Wars” $30 million. Production budget was $16 million on “The Unborn,” $5 million on “Not Easily Broken.”

“The Unborn” played like a typical horror film that’s rated PG-13; i.e., younger females made up a majority of the audience. A full 75% of the aud were under age 25.

Relativity prexy of production Tucker Tooley said the opening strength of “The Unborn” shows the strength of Rogue. That was seconded by Universal prexy of domestic distribution Nikki Rocco, who said the bow of the film was nothing short of amazing.

Sony, too, touted its film, saying the per-screen average of “Not Easily Broken” was the best among the top 10 films after that of “Gran Torino.” Film, which placed No. 7, is based on the book by pastor and author Bishop T.D. Jakes.

Elsewhere on the top 10 chart, Fox’s “Marley and Me” stayed atop the pack of holdovers, coming in No. 4. Dramedy declined 53% to an estimated $11.4 million from 2,478 runs; cume is $123.7 million.

Paramount’s “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” continued to thrive, grossing an estimated $9.5 million from 2,947 runs for a cume of $94.3 million in its third weekend. “Button” placed No. 5.

“Button,” down 49% from the previous weekend, is among a crowded crop of Christmas Day releases.

Disney’s Adam Sandler family comedy “Bedtime Stories” placed No. 6 for the weekend, declining 58% to an estimated $8.6 million; cume is $97.2 million.

Tom Cruise’s Nazi thriller “Valkyrie” declined 53% to an estimated $6.7 million from 2,838. Cume is $71.5 million.

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