Mother's Day, Earth Day are new launchpads

It was the mother of all box office surprises last week when “Babies” doubled its B.O. estimations, thanks to mostly female Mother’s Day filmgoers.

With major holidays like Christmas and Independence Day staked out sometimes years in advance as prime B.O. slots, Hollywood is looking for alternative launch pads to make the most of year-round releases, as well as to maximize increasingly lucrative female-driven pics.

So far this year, studios have laid claim to a bevy of unofficial holidays — from Valentine’s Day to Earth Day — with strategic marketing campaigns aimed at massaging more moolah.

Focus Features docu “Babies” debuted to a sizable $2.2 million at 534 playdates. After mounting an aggressive grassroots effort and a wider-than-usual rollout, the docu became a B.O. event among women. The pic’s $1 million on Sunday repped 50% of its total opening-weekend gross, the highest percentage of any film on Mother’s Day.

“For this movie, the holiday was absolutely perfect,” says Focus CEO James Schamus. “The (female) audience found something that they could truly cherish and now it’s about motivation — people talking to each other.”

Focus concentrated on promotion with partnerships with Johnson & Johnson and the March of Dimes. In turn, the docu made waves among female auds, acting as successful counterprogramming to the weekend’s box office giant “Iron Man 2.”

Summit also played to women that weekend, sneaking its Amanda Seyfried-Vanessa Redgrave starrer “Letters to Juliet” at 882 engagements. As expected, the pic played well, which Summit hoped would extend to “Letters’?” May 14 opening.

Like the femme-driven Mother’s Day push, Warner Bros. and New Line married aptly titled romantic comedy “Valentine’s Day” to Feb. 14. Warners coupled the pic’s launch with a promo campaign with cosmetics brand Nivea. Pic became the highest-grossing title on Valentine’s Day, wooing a total $23.4 million that day and $56.3 million for the weekend.

“Valentine’s Day” seemed destined to overperform on the film’s titular holiday. With an all-star ensemble cast that included Julia Roberts, Jamie Foxx and Anne Hathaway, the pic also managed to hold well in repeat frames, cuming a stellar $110.5 million.

The success of “Valentine’s Day” prompted New Line to move forward with holiday spinoff “New Year’s Eve,” with helmer Garry Marshall and much of the cast expected to return for the project. The year-end holiday has been a B.O. bonanza, given that moviegoers typically opt for a livelier night out. New Line plans to shoot the pic at the end of this year, with plans for a late 2011 release.

Meanwhile, Disney has occupied the less gender-specific Earth Day for the past two years, with a pair of nature docus “Earth” and “Oceans.” The Mouse House heavily marketed both docus to schools as group sales drove opening day grosses. And while students accounted for most of the grosses on Earth Day, which has fallen on weekdays the past two years, Disney distrib topper Chuck Viane notes that both docus registered best with female auds over the entire weekend.

“Earth” took in $4.4 million on Earth Day, while “Oceans” collected $2.4 million. The pics have cumed a standout $32 million and $16.5 million, respectively.

Viane describes unofficial holidays like Earth Day as the perfect solution for studios facing a packed slate year-round.

“The competitive landscape throughout the year has become so crowded that you look for opportunity dates,” he says. “Plus, I think distribution and marketing are working so much more hand-in-hand nowadays that they search these out.”

Universal is also looking for robust grosses from families next year with “Hop,” an animation-live action hybrid from Chris Meledandri’s Illumination Entertainment about an out-of-work slacker who accidentally injures the Easter Bunny and must help him recover in order to save Easter. Russell Brand voices the rabbit. James Marsden, Kaley Cuoco and Chelsea Handler star.

The studio is planning a major merchandising push around the pic and the holiday. Tyler Perry has also used Easter to his advantages, successfully opening several of his pics, which include religious themes, over the holiday weekend.

Still, with such aggressive marketing pushes, Schamus admits studios run the risk of making their films too event-specific, in what he describes as “best-if-used-by-date” movies.

“All you can do is say we’ve established a foothold,” Schamus adds before asking, “Is that foothold a precipice from which we will fall, or a baseline from which we will grow?”

Marc Graser contributed to this report.

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