Despite Icahn's criticism, minimajor's pics rake in revenue

In spite of the ongoing criticism by Carl Icahn, Lionsgate’s domestic box office is nearing the half-billion-dollar mark, making 2010 the minimajor’s strongest box office year by far.

With $485 million grossed through the weekend, Lionsgate has already topped its 2008 figure by $50 million and last year’s final total by $80 million. With Russell Crowe’s “The Next Three Days” launching this weekend and “Rabbit Hole” opening next month, Lionsgate’s final number could wind up above $550 million.

Icahn, who owns 33% of Lionsgate, is in the midst of a hostile takeover attempt of the company and is expected to launch a proxy fight to oust management at the Dec. 14 annual meeting. He has blasted Lionsgate management for overspending on acquisitions and films; the company has defended its track record, asserting that it’s holding costs down and improving its balance sheet and cash flow.

Lionsgate execs have been touting the strong box office as reflecting the diversity of the slate, which included a mixture of acquisitions and co-productions with Lionsgate productions, along with inexpensively acquired and marketed genre films (“Saw 3D”), platform releases and adult action/dramas. All its wide-release titles this year have topped $20 million, in what’s viewed within the company as a validation of its marketing and release strategy.

Lionsgate hit the $400 million mark in late October just before the release of “Saw 3D,” with grosses from just 10 releases. It took 16 Lionsgate films to reach the same benchmark in 2008 during Thanksgiving weekend — and half a dozen of those pics didn’t reach the $20 million mark.

Lionsgate hit its high point this year in August with back-to-back successes “The Last Exorcism” and “The Expendables.”

“Exorcism,” acquired for less than $1 million, hit $41 million; “Expendables,” tapping into surprisingly strong support among older customers, became the second Lionsgate title (after “Fahrenheit 9/11″) to top the $100 million mark.

Icahn was particularly critical of Lionsgate for the so-so returns from “Killers,” which grossed just short of $50 million, so the perfs by “Exorcism” and “Expendables” gives Lionsgate ammunition to defend its track record to its shareholders. Lionsgate execs have said they are continuing to aim for 13-14 titles per year with an average risk of $13 million per pic and a tight control on costs.

Tyler Perry’s “Why Did I Get Married Too” is Lionsgate’s second highest grosser this year, at $60 million, followed by “Kick-Ass” at $48 million, “Killers” at $47 million, “Saw 3D” at $44 million, “The Last Exorcism” at $41 million, “For Colored Girls” at $31 million and “Daybreakers” at $30 million.

In its earnings report last week, Lionsgate noted its total motion picture revenues were up 23% to $341 million for the quarter ended Sept. 30, in big part on the box office performance of “The Expendables.”

Lionsgate trails Summit’s year-to-date total by about $20 million, with the latter’s take coming mostly from the $300-million-plus grossed by “The Twilight Saga: Eclipse.” The two minimajors have combined for better than 10% of the total box office share this year.

Joe Drake, president of Lionsgate Motion Picture Group, said the rest of the year should see a solid contribution from “Next Three Days” plus awards-driven interest for “Rabbit Hole” and “For Colored Girls.”

“Success like we have achieved this past year is only possible when you have a strong group of people, working in sync with one another,” he said. “I couldn’t be more proud of the entire theatrical team – production, acquisitions, marketing, distribution. They are smart, creative people, firing on all cylinders at warp speed.”

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