'Marley' continues to lead the pack

The Christmas box office has turned into a cash cow for a diverse litter of titles, guaranteeing that ticket sales for 2008 will match or exceed last year’s record-breaking haul of $9.62 billion.

Twentieth Century Fox’s breakout holiday hit “Marley & Me” continues to lead, fetching a cume of $72.5 million through Wednesday — in only its seventh day in release.

“Marley,” produced by Fox 2000 and New Regency, was one of five titles opening nationwide on Christmas Day. All but one — “The Spirit” — are collecting plenty of coin and seeing the sort of midweek grosses that can make the week between Christmas and New Year’s the most lucrative stretch of the year.

Disney’s Adam Sandler family comedy “Bedtime Stories” has chalked up a cume of $56.7 million through Wednesday.

“Benjamin Button,” directed by David Fincher and starring Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett, has exceeded expectations, considering its running time of two hours and 47 minutes and its appeal to an older aud. Film’s cume through Wednesday was $52.7 million.

United Artists’ Tom Cruise starrer “Valkyrie,” the fifth wide release opening Dec. 25, also has found its footing, cuming $41 million through New Year’s Eve.

“Marley,” “Bedtime,” “Button” and “Valkyrie” take up the four top spots on the box office chart.

Through Wednesday, total domestic B.O. revenues for 2008 were north of $9.56 billion, and should eclipse $9.62 billion once New Year’s Day weekend receipts are tallied.

Admissions, however, are down 4% to 5% from last year. Still, that’s far less of a decline than other sectors of the economy are suffering. One report issued this week predicts that retail holiday sales would drop 16%.

Soft spots at the holiday box office include Lionsgate and Odd Lot Entertainment’s “The Spirit,” directed by Frank Miller. “Spirit’s” cume through Tuesday was $12.5 million.

While Sony’s Will Smith starrer “Seven Pounds” won’t necessarily be a financial loss, it ends Smith’s boffo box office run of recent years. Drama’s cume through Wednesday was $46 million.

Another film released on Dec. 19 along with “Seven Pounds” has had better luck: Warner Bros.’ Jim Carrey laffer “Yes Man” has grossed $60 million through Wednesday

For the most part, weekday numbers have been boffo. “Marley” earned $7.5 million on Monday, $7.3 million on Tuesday and $6.9 million on Wednesday (theater traffic usually always slows down on New Year’s Eve). That compares to $14 million last Friday, $12.7 million on Saturday and $9.7 million on Sunday for an opening weekend kitty of $36.4 million.

“What it proves is that ‘Marley’ is a true crowd pleaser and an all-audience movie,” Fox senior VP of distribution Chris Aronson said.

Because of such strong midweek numbers during Christmas, films can do far more business than usual, even summer. Generally speaking, a successful title will cume three times its opening gross. (Tentpoles nabbing huge numbers on opening weekend can see more rapid declines).

That means “Marley,” based on the best-selling book, could cume ultimately north of $150 million at the domestic box office. “Button,” “Bedtime” and “Valkyrie” likewise could sport impressive cumes by the end of their theatrical runs.

Strength of “Marley’s” bark has caught Hollywood by surprise, since “Bedtime Stories” was considered the front-runner, being a broad family film.

“Marley,” however, quickly emerged as the favorite, playing to families and non-families alike. Pic was directed by David Frankel, who also helmed Fox 2000 hit “The Devil Wears Prada.”

Success of “Marley” is a much-needed victory for Fox, which has suffered a difficult year at the domestic box office.

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