Romantic comedy finds love with the ladies

Hollywood’s B.O. stimulus package — a cluster of precision-targeted pics — won landslide approval as Warner Bros. release of New Line’s star-laden romantic comedy “He’s Just Not That Into You” topped the weekend with $27.5 million.

Focus Features’ 3-D title “Coraline” and Summit’s poorly reviewed frosh actioner “Push” both outperformed expectations, adding to the weekend’s overall strong performance by rookies and holdovers and extending the B.O.’s amazing hot streak in 2009.

The torrent of highly commercial new releases dinged the Oscar-nominated pics, which — outside of “Slumdog Millionaire,” “The Wrestler” and “The Reader” — saw virtually no bump. That’s rare for kudos contenders in February.

The weekend improved on last year’s comparable frame by more than 50%. No single title dropped by more than 38%, and the miniscule drops seen by “Taken” (18%) and “Paul Blart: Mall Cop” (21%) attest to strong demand by economy-shaken auds for a well-priced good time.

Only the lower-than-forecast bow of “The Pink Panther 2” dimmed the weekend picture. The Sony-MGM co-venture opened to $12 million, well below the bow of the franchise’s 2006 reboot, which opened to $20.2 million and finished with $82.2 million.

Pic’s feeble bow does not add a lot of weight to MGM’s claims that the “Pink Panther” franchise belongs next to the James Bond series on the company’s roster as the Lion looks to control its own destiny to a greater extent.

“It was at the low end of our expectations,” conceded Sony distrib chief Rory Bruer. “But it should work out for us.”

The common view from those releasing pics into the suddenly energized marketplace is that movies in this economy, as in earlier tough times, hold enormous appeal as a lower-cost entertainment option. Total box office entered the weekend up 18% over 2008 levels and an astounding 43% over 2007.

“People are going to everything,” said Warner Bros. distrib chief Dan Fellman. “Everyone has a story to tell.”

Fox distribution veep Chris Aronson agreed: “When you have this kind of depth of product, people are able to find what they want, and then one weekend leads into the next.”

“Coraline’s” $16.3 million bow gives 3-D a boost. That opening number is well above what Focus Features had predicted for the dark-tinged toon produced by Laika, Phil Knight’s new outfit. The film showed the upside of the format as 44% of its playdates were in 3-D but they accounted for 70% of the total gross.

Focus distrib topper Jack Foley made a Katzenbergian case for the transformative potential of 3-D based on “Coraline.” The pic’s dark themes and the less-than-commercial history of helmer Henry Selick (“Monkeybone”) prompted even its boosters to try to keep expectations in check.

“It wound up playing very broadly,” Foley said. “It didn’t just settle into the family niche. It did extremely big business at night.”

At L.A.’s ArcLight, for example, the pic punched up $13,500 on Friday and $16,000 more on Saturday in a house not known for family fare. The AMC Empire, a similarly defined locale in Gotham’s Times Square, took in $22,000 on Friday and jumped to $30,000 on Saturday.

“Thankfully, there have been a lot of pioneers before us,” Foley said of other distribs advancing the cause of higher-margin 3-D titles. “And one of these leads into another. ‘Bolt’ goes into ‘Coraline,’ which goes into ‘Jonas Brothers’ and into ‘Monsters vs. Aliens.’ It’s clear to me that people are excited about 3-D.”

Male action fans rallied around “Taken” a week after its surprisingly big launch opposite the Super Bowl. And young males who had already been taken with Liam Neeson’s turn kicking ass seemed to migrate to “Push,” which managed $10.2 million, well above the $6 million-$8 million of most forecasts.

“Slumdog Millionaire,” as the dark horse that’s become an Oscar favorite, has plenty of distance yet to travel. This weekend, it collected an additional $7.4 million, adding 89 theaters and dropping just 3%.

With $77.4 million in the till, it has now passed “Sideways” in the Fox Searchlight annals to become the company’s No. 2 grosser, trailing only “Juno.”

For Oscar nominees such as Searchlight’s “Slumdog” and “The Wrestler” (now up to $16.2 million after banking $2.2 million in 756 locations), life is good. But aside from that duo and “The Reader,” the Weinstein Co.’s late-charging best picture nominee ($2.3 million in 862 sites and a $16.1 million cume), pickings are slim. The likes of “Milk,” “Frost/Nixon” and “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” are on a downward trajectory at odds with most Oscar seasons.

The bump has been more of a nudge. “Button,” which opened wide on Christmas day, added $2.4 million from 1,478 locations, but that spells an underwhelming average of $1,624; cume is $120 million. “Milk” pulled in $1.1 million from 601 theaters to reach $25.3 million. “Frost” mustered $752,850 from 481 to hit $15.6 million.

Holdovers “Gran Torino” and “Slumdog Millionaire” kept cranking away in the top 10. “Gran Torino” has a good shot at $140 million, Fellman predicted, which would be miles ahead of Clint Eastwood’s previous career high, 1993 Columbia release “In the Line of Fire” at $102.3 million.

Limited bows were minimal and low impact. The Weinstein Co.’s long-gestating “Fanboys” didn’t break out, bringing in $164,000 from 44 theaters for an average of $3,727. It was distribbed by the company’s emerging genre label Third Rail.

Sony Pictures Classics has another foreign-language standout in “The Class,” which built on its debut last week on six screens with a $192,367 weekend on 27. The average for the Palme d’Or winner was $7,125, and the cume after 10 days is already $587,623.

“He’s Just Not Into You,” based on a bestselling book by “Sex and the City” alums Greg Behrendt and Liz Tuccillo, drew a crowd that was 80% female. It was the biggest nonholiday romantic comedy debut in February and has strong prospects of showing great legs leading into the Valentine’s Day weekend frame.

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