Fox's action pic wins Super Bowl weekend

Twentieth Century Fox’s Liam Neeson action-thriller “Taken” scored a touchdown at the domestic box office, proving that male-driven pics can open successfully on Super Bowl weekend.

“Taken” grossed an estimated $24.6 million from 3,183 runs, making it the second-best Super Bowl opener of all time, after last year’s tween girl hit “Hannah Montana/Miley Cyrus: Best of Both Worlds Concert Tour” ($31.1 million), according to Rentrak.

Studios have long steered clear of debuting testosterone-heavy titles in this slot because of the steep drop in theater traffic on Sunday, preferringto roll out horror titles and romantic comedies, two female-driven genres.

To wit, Paramount and DreamWorks’ horror entry “The Uninvited” opened to an estimated $10.5 million from 2,344 runs to place No. 3 for the weekend. But Lionsgate’s Renee Zellweger-Harry Connick Jr. starrer “New in Town” managed only No. 8, with an estimated $6.8 million from 1,941.

Sony’s holdover hit “Paul Blart: Mall Cop,” which declined just 35% in its third sesh to an estimated $14 million, took the No. 2 slot. Kevin James sleeper has a boffo cume of $83.4 million.

Among Oscar best-pic hopefuls, Fox Searchlight’s “Slumdog Millionaire” continued to dazzle as it upped its theater count to 1,633 in its second weekend in wide release. Film, which won the DGA’s top award Saturday for helmer Danny Boyle, grossed an estimated $7.7 million for a per-location average of $4,703 and cume of $67.2 million in its 12th sesh.

The Weinstein Co.’s “The Reader” and Focus Features’ “Milk” — also best pic nominees — both expanded to so-so results. Overall, box office revenues were up slightly over Super Bowl weekend in 2008. Weekend caps the strongest January in history, with ticket sales running 7% over last year’s levels. Clint Eastwood’s “Gran Torino,” from Warner Bros., was January’s top earner, with a cume of $110.5 million through Sunday. “Mall Cop” was No. 2 for the month.

“Gran Torino,” with an estimated weekend cume of $8.6 million, becomes Eastwood’s most successful film ever, as actor or helmer. “He is an extraordinary director and actor whose films resonate loudly with the public,” said Warner Bros. exec VP of domestic distribution Jeff Goldstein.

As with “Mall Cop,” “Taken’s” strong box office performance was a surprise. While Neeson’s not known for playing action heroes, his portrayal of a former government operative whose daughter is kidnapped did the trick with auds, who gave the film top marks in exit polls. Aud was 52% male, while 60% were over age 25.

Pic was directed by Pierre Morel, produced and co-written by French filmmaker Luc Besson.

Fox made a bold move in deciding to open “Taken” on Super Bowl weekend. As late as November, “Taken” was set to open Jan. 23, but the studio moved it into the Jan. 30 slot after determining that Friday and Saturday grosses could make up for Sunday’s decline in traffic (this year, Sunday ticket sales were down an estimated 65% from Saturday). The gamble paid off.

“We had confidence in the movie. Everything worked. You had an effective campaign and people came. And there is no male-driven film for weeks to come,” said Fox senior VP of distribution Bert Livingston.

“Taken” wasn’t the only movie bucking Super Bowl weekend in terms of gender. Paramount assumed “Uninvited” would play to a female-skewed crowd, but the audience was much more mixed than expected. Pic was the top choice for younger moviegoers, with two-thirds of the audience under age 25.

“The movie met our expectations,” said Par exec VP of domestic distribution Don Harris.

“Uninvited,” starring David Strathairn and Elizabeth Banks, was co-financed by Montecito Pictures.

Both “Uninvited” and “New in Town” garnered poor reviews (“Taken” fared much better among critics).

“New in Town” played heavily to older women. The audience was 75% female, with 56% over age 30.

Lionsgate prexy of distribution Steve Rothenberg said pic met the studio’s modest expectations. Elsewhere on the top 10 chart, Par and DreamWorks’ family holdover “Hotel for Dogs” saw a slim decline of 32% in its third sesh to place No. 4 for the weekend. Pic grossed an estimated $8.7 million from 3,160 runs for a cume of $48.2 million.

Warner Bros. and New Line’s family title “Inkheart” continued to struggle in its second weekend, placing No. 10 and declining 51% to an estimated $3.7 million from 2,655 for a cume of $12.8 million.

Sony’s “Underworld: Rise of the Lycans” saw the biggest week-over-week drop among titles on the top 10 chart, dipping 65% in its second weekend to an estimated $7.2 million from 2,942. Cume is $32.8 million.

Lionsgate’s “My Bloody Valentine 3-D” placed No. 9 in its third frame, declining 57% to an estimated $4.3 million from 1,406 for a respectable cume of $44.6 million.

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