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De Niro, Stallone Fighting for Box Office Glory in ‘Grudge Match’

Punching towards a Christmas opening

With sporting events dominating TV over Thanksgiving weekend, Warner Bros. is making a major push for its Robert De Niro-Sylvester Stallone box comedy “Grudge Match.”

It opens Christmas Day against four other nationwide launches: Fox’s “The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty,” Paramount’s “The Wolf of Wall Street,” Universal’s “47 Ronin” and Open Road’s “Believe.”

Warner-based producer Bill Gerber is hopeful that “Grudge Match” will offer a parallel box office success story to the 2008 hit “Grand Torino,” which starred Clint Eastwood and went on to gross $270 million worldwide. Warner Bros. opened “Gran Torino” in limited release in mid-December and expanded it in January as the drama caught on to become Eastwood’s highest grossing film by far.

“Gran Torino” was also Gerber’s biggest success as a producer. Eastwood and Robert Lorenz also produced.

“’Gran Torino’ and ‘Grudge Match’ are both movies about second chances,” Gerber notes. “You also have iconic actors playing into their film histories.”

Indeed, Stallone made a major splash with “Rocky” in 1976, receiving Academy Award nominations for Best Actor and screenplay in 1976. Four years later, De Niro won his second Best Actor Oscar for “Raging Bull.”

Serious advertising started during the Nov. 24 Manny Paquiao-Brandon Rios fight with “Grudge Match” serving as a sponsor of the bout.

“Grudge Match” originated with Mark Steven Johnson bringing Gerber the idea, based on a story by Tim Kelleher with the script by Kelleher and Rodney Rothman. The set-up called for two retired fighters having battled each other during their primes with each winning a bout, leading to a grudge match that was called off at the last minute – creating three decades of resentment.

While serving as production president at Warner Bros. during the 1990s, Gerber had worked with Johnson on 1993’s “Grumpy Old Men” with  Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon and with director Peter Segal on 1996’s “My Fellow Americans,” starring Lemmon and James Garner. So it’s little surprise that the trailers for “Grudge Match” feature bantering on the same order as vintage Matthau and Lemmon.

“Gutsy move to go without a bra,” quips Stallone to De Niro at the start of the bout. “I took a dump on your porch,” replies De Niro.

Gerber took the project to De Niro first, then got Stallone to commit. Stallone, now 67, is only seven years removed from “Rocky Balboa,” which took in $155 million worldwide as the sixth Rocky film. De Niro and Stallone have starred in one film together — 1997’s crime drama “Cop Land.”

De Niro was 69 when “Grudge Match” was shot last winter in New Orleans (though set in Pittsburgh). It’s a mid-priced project — the kind that studios have been spurning in the era of mega-franchise tentpoles.

“This is a real audience-pleaser,” Gerber notes. “We did very well at our test showings beyond the core audience of older males.”

Warner had originally planned to open in January but decided last summer to go for a Christmas opening. Dan Fellman, president of domestic distribution, declared at the time, “Results of our early screenings have been outstanding, giving us every indication that ‘Grudge Match’ is a movie that can excel during the Christmas play period.”

Kevin Hart portrays the fight promoter. Alan Arkin serves as Stallone’s trainer and Kim Basinger plays Stallone’s former love.

De Niro and Stallone play Billy “The Kid” McDonnen and Henry “Razor” Sharp as local Pittsburgh fighters; each had scored a victory against the other during their heyday, but in 1983, on the eve of their decisive third match, Razor suddenly announced his retirement, refusing to explain why. On their first encounter in decades to tape footage for a videogame, their feud erupts into a fight that instantly goes viral, making the subsequent bout a must-see HBO event.

The film is produced by Segal, Gerber, Johnson, Michael Ewing and Ravi Mehta.

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