First quarter’s mixed message

It's a record haul, but Hollywood has concerns

Domestic B.O. ended the first quarter with a record $2.1 billion, but that doesn’t mean studio execs are all smiles.

January and February brought in best-ever box office hauls, and the bonanza was spread wide over multiple films, rather than based on just a few blockbusters like last year’s “300” and “Hog Wild.”

“Dr. Seuss’ Horton Hears a Who!” from Fox proved the star performer of the quarter, and other pics like “Cloverfield,” the “Hannah Montana” 3-D concert film and specialty title “Juno” boosted the tallies.

But some distribution execs say the studios didn’t offer audiences enough varied fare — such as pics aimed at the over-25 crowd — to give the quarter even more spectacular results.

The quarter ended on a down note, as March came in like a lion and retreated like a lamb, down 14% from March 2007, with the final weekend of the quarter down more than 17%.

Studios always get nervous when theater traffic softens. And with the economy teetering on the edge of a recession, there are plenty of worries about what this means for the B.O.

While naysayers can find ammo to fret over, there was plenty of good news in the quarter.

Year-to-date, the domestic box office was up 1% over 2007 through March 31, with receipts totaling roughly $2.1 billion. (However, the rise may prove to be due to increased ticket prices rather than more tix sold.)

The first three months of 2008 were up 7% over both 2006 and 2005, and up 4% even over 2004, the year that Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” revved up the box office by luring folks who didn’t usually go to movies.

This year, several solid-to-strong performers helped steady the charts, led by 20th Century Fox’s Easter family toon “Dr. Seuss’ Horton Hears a Who!” The pic, released March 14, was the first 2008 film to jump the $100 million mark, grossing more than $118 million through March 31.

Last year, three sleeper hits released in the first quarter accomplished that feat: “300,” “Wild Hogs” and “Ghost Rider.”

Those first two films, both released in early March, drove the box office to unheard-of heights, with $176.5 million and $133.5 million in March 2007 alone. And the last weekend of March 2007 saw the release of Will Ferrell laffer “Blades of Glory.”

One veteran distributor questions whether studios failed to serve older demos this year. While there are plenty of choices for teens and older women, there were no broad offerings like “Wild Hogs,” which drew older moviegoers.

Warner Bros.’ Jack Nicholson-Morgan Freeman starrer “The Bucket List,” released on Christmas Day, was the unsung box office hit of January and February, grossing more than $90 million.

“What has been playing, and to whom? People are willing to go to the movies, but they have to be inspired,” the exec says.

There were several disappointments during the March frame. Some were slight; some were glaring.

The biggest misfire was arguably New Line’s Will Ferrell comedy “Semi-Pro,” released on Feb. 29. The film opened to a disappointing $15 million, Ferrell’s lowest bow for a wide release. (The day before the movie unspooled, Time Warner announced it was downsizing New Line to a small label within the Warners.)

To date, “Semi-Pro” has grossed $33.1 million domestically. Last year, “Blades of Glory,” from DreamWorks/Par, grossed $33 million in its opening week on its way to making $118.6 million domestically.

Studios are always trying to re-create past victories, so it was no surprise when Warner Bros. announced it would release Roland Emmerich’s “10,000 BC” in the same frame in which it opened “300.”

But “10,000” hasn’t done the sort of boffo business that “300” did. To date, “10,000” has grossed more than $84 million domestically and more than $143 million overseas for a worldwide tally of roughly $228 million.

Emmerich’s previous film, 2004’s “The Day After Tomorrow,” grossed $186.7 million domestically and $356 million overseas for a worldwide total of $542.7 million.

Most of Emmerich’s big-budget pics, including “Day,” have opened during summer. Warners, flush with the “300” victory, decided to go a different route with “10,000,” underscoring Hollywood’s attempt to broaden the calendar for live-action tentpoles as the May-August corridor gets more and more crowded.

Fox has turned March into fertile ground for animated films, having successfully opened three: “Horton” and both “Ice Age” movies. The family films tap into the fact that schools’ spring breaks are now spread across several weeks.

While March may have lagged, January and February were anything but chilly at the box office.

Usually, January box office is driven by holdovers from Christmas. This year was different. Par’s novel monster pic “Cloverfield” scored the best January opening with a bow of $40 million, although the film did take a steep drop on its way to cuming $80 million domestically.

“Cloverfield” is likely to make studio distrib execs look at January with different eyes. Ditto with “27 Dresses,” which Fox opened Jan. 18, instead of the traditionally romancers Valentine’s Day frame. “Dresses” cumed $76.1 million domestically.

February was energized by Disney’s breakout 3-D tween hit “Hannah Montana/Miley Cyrus: The Best of Both Worlds Concert Tour,” which grossed $31 million in its opening from fewer than 640 screens on its way to cuming $64.8 million.

There was a hodge-podge of decently performing pics in February, including Fox’s male-skewing “Jumper,” Par’s “Spiderwick Chronicles,” Sony’s “Vantage Point” and Warners’ “Fool’s Gold.”

Three films targeting both older and younger females did reasonably good business in the first quarter, led by Fox’s “27 Dresses” and Warners’ “Fool’s Gold,” and Sony’s historical bodice ripper “The Other Boleyn Girl.”

Another trio of films targeting African-American auds have been able performers, including Lionsgate’s “Tyler Perry’s Meet the Browns,” Disney’s “College Road Trip” and Universal’s “Welcome Home Roscoe Jones.”

On the specialty side, Fox Searchlight’s “Juno,” released on Dec. 5, racked up most of its box office fortune in January and February. Pic has cumed $142 million domestically, making it the most successful specialty film in B.O. history.

Studios also used the quarter to shed smaller films before the crush of summer. Most titles weren’t especially notable, but neither were they huge financial risks, such as Owen Wilson laffer “Drillbit Taylor” and Fox/New Regency’s “Shutter,” both released in March.

One surprise buzz-builder: Lionsgate’s British bank heist drama “The Bank Job,” hung in there with $24.3 million through March 31.

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