Sandler laffer squeaks by 'Bieber' to win sesh

Women drove the domestic box office again, leading those getting back into the moviegoing habit this weekend after the previous, Super Bowl-dampened frame.

Sony’s Adam Sandler-Jennifer Aniston starrer “Just Go With It,” with an estimated $31 million from 3,548 locations, narrowly beat Paramount’s 3D biopic-music concert hybrid “Just Bieber: Never Say Never,” which played 3,105 engagements, including 2,516 in 3D with 84% of the weekend gross, for an estimated $30.3 million.

Opening for “Just Go With It” was 58% femme-driven — a significant shift since Sandler pics usually skew more male (though that wasn’t the case with Sandler’s most recent hit, “Grown Ups”). “Never Say Never,” as expected, also saw an overwhelmingly female turnout, 84%, boosted by the pop phenom’s following among teen girls.

Despite both films’ strong bows, along with a terrific start for Disney’s 3D toon “Gnomeo and Juliet,” with an estimated $25.5 million — a February high for animated fare — the weekend sesh was down from the comparable 2010 frame, which was Presidents’ Day Weekend.

Studios were expecting three-day grosses from this year’s top 10 to trail 2010 by about 29%. That would be in line with the year’s gloomy box office to date, since the domestic B.O. for 2011 has trailed 2010 by as much as 30% in previous frames. Last year, the box office enjoyed a double boost with Valentine’s Day falling during the Presidents’ Day weekend. This year, without that confluence, the top B.O. players proved robust enough comparatively.

“They really clicked with their core audiences,” said Focus Features distribution exec Jack Foley. Focus’ “The Eagle” debuted with a fine $8.6 million from 2,296.

“There’s a diversity now in the marketplace,” Foley added.

Fox Searchlight’s specialty comedy “Cedar Rapids” got off to a good start in limited release. Film launched with $310,789 from 15 locations for a per-engagement average of $20,719. Searchlight plans to add 18 cities next weekend, expanding the pic to approximately 105 locations.

This year’s Oscar-nommed shorts program bowed theatrically with an estimated $305,000 from 95 locations, averaging $3,211 per engagement. That was slightly better than the opening for last year’s run, which cumed just over $1 million.

The Weinstein Co.’s multiple Oscar-nommed “The King’s Speech” continues to serve up its core adult demo, dropping just 4% in the film’s 12th week for an estimated $7.4 million. “Speech,” with a total $93.9 million, is on track to becoming 2010’s top specialty title, behind Fox Searchlight’s “Black Swan,” which has cumed $99.4 million, after adding $2.2 million over the weekend.

“Swan” also expanded to major markets like France, Mexico and Russia, giving the film enough steam to beat Sony’s “The Green Hornet” as the No. 1 film overseas. “Swan” tallied an estimated $18.6 million for the weekend to move its international cume to $72 million. “Green Hornet” came in with $18.3 million, lifting its foreign cume to $107.2 million.

Both films got the edge over last weekend’s overseas champ “Tangled,” which made $17.3 million this frame, according to Disney’s estimate. Pic’s international tally reached $310 million, making it the seventh-highest grossing Disney toon overseas.

The domestic B.O. has struggled to keep step with 2010’s year-to-date totals, but B.O. pundits are optimistic this weekend’s crop is positioned well to play through the upcoming President’s Day weekend. The frame should far outdo last year, as it compares with a regular three-day weekend in 2010.

Sony’s “Just Go With It” likely will benefit most from Monday’s heightened Valentine’s Day grosses, even though Mondays are typically the slowest at multiplexes. The film, which cost a reported $80 million, is the 11th No. 1 opener for Sandler and, according to Sony, should play well into holdover frames based on its broad appeal and A- Cinema-Score rating. Pic scored best with women over 25 but saw a solid male turnout, with 42%.

“You’ve got to give Adam props,” said Rory Bruer, prexy of worldwide distribution for Sony. “He knows how to make audiences laugh, and he knows what they want to see.”

Appealing to a much more targeted aud, Par’s “Never Say Never” earned 84% of its weekend gross from women, with 67% of them under 25. Most of the adults who saw the pic were likely moms given the film’s overwhelming turnout of teenage (and younger) girls needing rides to the multiplexes.

Women gave the film a sterling A+ rating; pic even scored an A overall. “Ultimately, the whole crew told a compelling story, and that’s what you saw in those exits,” said Par vice chairman Rob Moore.

Leading into the weekend, Par was predicting a bow in the mid-teens, in line with the $12.5 million for similarly targeted “Jonas Brothers: The 3D Concert Experience.” But the film’s $30 million take — in line with “Hannah Montana/Miley Cyrus: Concert Tour,” which opened to $31 million — will have the studio breathing easier, given “Never Say Never’s” $12 million budget and reported $20 million marketing spend. The film got off to a good start Wednesday, selling out exclusive screenings that laid the foundation for its $31 million cume through the weekend, as well as added coin from 3D upcharge.

Gnomeo and Juliet,” from Disney’s Touchstone Pictures, earned less from 3D sites, with 58%, though the film had far fewer 3D locations (1,809) than “Never Say Never.”

“We knew they were coming out of the box … but yesterday we showed we were a player,” said Disney distrib topper Chuck Viane, referring to “Gnomeo’s” higher take on Saturday vs. that of “Never Say Never.”

“Gnomeo and Juliet” drew between 72%-75% of family auds, while Elton John’s contributions to the film’s music likely had a lot to do with attracting non-families, Viane said.

Appealing to a more adult male aud, Focus’ PG-13 rated “The Eagle,” toplining Channing Tatum, profited as the weekend’s counterprogramming to femme-heavy “Never Say Never” and family-oriented “Gnomeo and Juliet.” Pic likely competed most against “Just Go With It,” since that film also drew its share of males.

“We’re coming in to where we want to be in terms of our own business needs,” Foley said of “The Eagle’s” launch. Over the long haul, however, the film could be hurt by its less-than-desireable C+ CinemaScore rating, though men gave it a B rating.

Frame’s best holdovers, Sony/Screen Gems’ “The Roommate” and Par’s “No Strings Attached,” had surprising repeat perfs given newer entries’ popularity among femmes; both holdovers have played best to women. “Roommate” dropped 44% — a better-than-usual second outing for the genre — with an estimated $8.4 million, while “No Strings Attached” grossed $5.6 million, down just 29% in its fourth frame. “Roommate” hit $26 million Stateside through the weekend; “No Strings Attached” has cumed nearly $60 million domestically.

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