‘Shrek’ treads lightly at domestic B.O.

Fourth in franchise opens with $71.3 million

“Shrek Forever After” opened this weekend at the domestic box office with a less-than-expected estimated $71.3 million — despite 3D ticket price hikes.

The first 3D offering in the four-pic franchise, Paramount and DreamWorks Animation’s latest “Shrek” may have found the B.O. swamp too mucky to tread, even for an ogre.

Although “Forever After” debuted with less than the two previous installments, pic still stands as the fourth-highest toon opener. The “Shrek” franchise occupies three of the top four spots; “The Simpsons Movie” was the third-highest debut for an animated film.

The family-powered frame left little room for Relativity Media’s R-rated action comedy “MacGruber.” Pic, which was distributed by Universal, opened with a disappointing $4.1 million estimate at 2,551 locations.

On the international front, “Forever After” debuted day-and-date in nine territories on 1,236 screens, with a strong $26 million weekend estimate.

Disney’s 3D holdover “Alice in Wonderland” took in an estimated $7.9 million in 32 overseas markets on 3,071 screens, closing in on a remarkable $1 billion worldwide cume with $996.6 million.

Reliance Big Pictures’ Bollywood pic “Kites” became one of the first Indian films to crack the domestic top 10, with an estimated $1 million at 207 engagements for a per-screen average of $5,013. “Kites” joins a recent crop of Bollywood hits led by “My Name Is Khan” and “3 Idiots,” both of which debuted at 120 locations, with $1.9 million and $1.6 million, respectively.

“Forever After” debuted at 4,359 Stateside locations, with 61% of its weekend take coming from 2,373 3D-equipped locations, including 194 Imax runs. Imax contributed 7% of the toon’s overall domestic weekend take.

Like DWA’s 3D toon “How to Train Your Dragon,” which made an estimated $1.9 million in its ninth frame, “Forever After” earned the majority of its opening take from 3D. “Dragon” debuted March 26 with a soft $43.7 million (65% from 3D), but proved to be a long-legged beast with an estimated cume of $211 million.

DWA head of worldwide marketing Anne Globe noted the holdover success of “Dragon,” saying, “We always believe it’s where you finish, not where you start.

“When looking at how 3D has played out, historically it has had a higher multiple and a longer hold,” Globe added. “So we feel optimistic about that and think that all the 3D and Imax formats will continue to hold very well.”

Par primed “Forever After” for a relatively clear playing field on the kidpic front as the frame’s most anticipated family-friendly film, as well as the only major 3D release until Disney’s 3D redux “Toy Story 3” launches June 18. “Forever After” received an A CinemaScore rating, which should also bode well for the toon in subsequent frames.

Still, even as the frame’s top family draw, some insiders question whether “Forever After” can outpace the franchise’s highest-grossing installment “Shrek 2,” which cumed $436.7 million domestically in 2004. That film launched with $108 million, while “Shrek the Third” debuted with $121.6 million in 2007 for a domestic total of $322.7 million.

Par had predicted an $80 million take for “Forever After” and competing studios suggest that the lower result could point to franchise fatigue among moviegoers. “Forever After’s” aud was 56% under 25.

Voiced by repeat cast members including Mike Myers, Cameron Diaz, Eddie Murphy and Antonio Banderas, toon follows the eponymous green ogre in what Par has touted to be his “Final Chapter” — an alternative title Par used in some marketing promos.

Relativity Media’s wide release “MacGruber” fell short this weekend, failing to expand outside its core fanboy demo. “We took a shot with it, and the film never went beyond that audience,” said Geoff Ammer, prexy of worldwide theatrical marketing for Relativity.

Based on the “Saturday Night Live” comedy sketch, “MacGruber” will face an uphill battle developing word-of-mouth, especially given the film’s C- CinemaScore rating. Pic, which toplines “SNL” alum Will Forte and Kristen Wiig, saw an even split among the ages, but appealed more to male auds, with 58%.

“MacGruber” fell behind a crop of holdovers, led by Par’s comicbook sequel “Iron Man 2” and U’s Ridley Scott-directed epic “Robin Hood.”

“Iron Man 2” dropped to the No. 2 spot, slipping 49% in its third frame for an estimated $26.6 million, while “Robin Hood” saw a comparable drop, taking in an estimated $18.7 million. “Iron Man 2” continues to chase its predecessor’s domestic benchmark of $318.4 million, trailing with $251.3 million. In its second outing, “Robin Hood” has cumed $66.1 million domestically.

Summit’s “Letters to Juliet” continued to benefit from few new femme-targeted pics in the mix. “Letters” slipped only 33% for an estimated weekend take of $9.1 million at 2,975 locations, bringing its cume to $27.4 million.

Specialty distrib Anchor Bay launched Michael Douglas starrer “Solitary Man,” about a man struggling to balance his career and family. Pic earned an estimated $89,000 at four locations, scoring the top per-screen average of $22,250.

On the international front, Disney debuted vidgame adaptation “Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time” a week ahead of U.S. release in 19 territories on 4,125 screens. “Prince” topped most markets for an estimated $18 million and is poised to perform well during midweek seshes, given bank and national holidays in several territories today.

“Forever After” reaped top coin in Russia, grossing an estimated $20 million on 700 screens to become the territory’s all-time highest opener. Australia is the next major market to get the toon (June 17), while most of Europe will wait until late June and early July.

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