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Holiday Box Office Preview: True Grit vs. Little Fockers

Holiday Box Office Preview: True Grit vs. Little Fockers

Every year the studios dream of scooping up Christmas holiday sugar plums. Will they find them this season? Anthony D’Alessandro makes a fearless holiday box office forecast:

What present do the majors want to open under the Christmas tree? A box office full of cash. “There’s no better time of year for adult moviegoing then the week between Christmas and New Year’s,” says Paramount distribution exec vp Don Harris. “Good movies play well to everybody. The play’s the thing.”

Christmas is the only season when a wide release can make more than three times its opening.  That’s why it’s too early to zap down Tron:Legacy, which could still develop legs to beat out King Kong, a 2005 holiday tentpole which initially fell below lofty expectations ($50.1 million in three days), but wound up with a $218.1 million domestic and $550.5 million global take.

The family-film uptick kicked in Monday, when kids started coming home from school. Tron lead the pack with $6 million, followed by a number of family films racking up seven figures: Yogi Bear ($2.4 million) and The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader and Tangled experienced their best mid-week (Monday to Thursday) numbers since they opened ($2.23 million and $1.99 million, respectively, excluding Tangled’s first Wednesday, and Thanksgiving day).

Families will continue to commune at the multiplex throughout the week as Universal’s threequel co-prod (with Paramount/Relativity Media) Little Fockers looks to feast off $60 million at 3,536 theaters from Wednesday through Sunday.  Fox had a fabulous run at this time of year with another comedian-adventure vehicle, Ben Stiller’s Night at the Museum (which generated eight times its $30 million bow for a $250 million domestic haul in 2006) and hopes youngsters book a trip with Jack Black’s 3-D take on Gulliver’s Travels at an estimated 2,546 sites on December 25. Two-day projections vary for Gulliver from $8 to $15 million.

But this time of year isn’t just about general audience fare: it’s a pivotal point for award season contenders to cash in on buzz.

Thus Paramount is galloping the Coen Brothers’ remake of the 1969 John Wayne starrer True Grit into 3,047 barns on Wednesday, the widest release ever for the helmers, surpassing the 2,651 count for Burn After Reading (which opened at $19.1 million).  True Grit is estimated to gross about $20 million over five days, a glorious take for the declining western genre. Working strongly in the Coen’s corner are critics, who’ve branded the pic 96% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes.  Meanwhile, Fox Searchlight is twirling Black Swan across the country, moving the ballerina thriller from 959 to 1,468 venues.

Genre titles (The Spirit, $19.8 million domestic B.O.), bad comedies (Did You Hear About the Morgans, $29.6 million) and tepidly reviewed kudo contenders (Nine, $19.7 million) can all underwhelm during the Yuletide season, confirms Disney distrib chief Chuck Viane: “The movie is really the answer, not so much the genre.”

“What makes you nervous is when your movie is a quick burn,” says another distribution exec about the frame. “The problem is that bad movies never make it back.”

Distribs aren’t fretting that there isn’t an Avatar ($760.5 million) in the marketplace — the sci-fi epic drove last year’s Christmas and New Year’s frames to respective milestones of $270.1 million and $220.3 million. Rather, it’s that Christmas falls on a Saturday. Moviegoing stops at around 5 p.m. on Christmas Eve, leaving Friday’s returns depressed.  Audiences won’t return until about the same time on Christmas. However, people will flock to the cinemas before and after the holiday. The ideal springboard scenario is when Christmas falls on a Thursday.  Even sans Avatar, holiday turnstiles should continue to spin, just not at a record-breaking pace.

Beyond Christmas, a dogfight is expected to ensue between Little Fockers and Tron as they jockey for the daily No. 1 spot. Even though Little Fockers cost some $100 million, 25% more than its previous chapter, it should recoup in its first week, if not by New Year’s Day. Its release pattern is similar to Meet the Fockers in 2004, when Christmas fell on a Saturday. Meet the Parents tooted a $70.5 million Wednesday-Sunday bow and played wide through Presidents Day, ultimately making $279.3 million. Christmas Eve Friday for Meet the Fockers remained dormant at $7.1 million, then soared on Saturday and Sunday with $19 million-plus apiece for a $46.1 million three-day. But the movie has met a nasty thumbs down from critics (8% on the Tomatometer) and negative WOM could dampen its prospects.

Paramount’s True Grit (which was co-financed by Skydance Productions for $38 million), looks to charm southerners and Middle Americans as well as metropolitans. Even ladies could find a seat next to oater-loving males thanks to Hailee Steinfeld’s bravado turn as the avenging Mattie Ross. Westerns during the holidays have typically been platformed.  No Country for Old Men ($74.3 million domestic) went wide throughout most of December while Brokeback Mountain ($83 million domestic) hiked to a peak by Oscar noms. Paramount switched the release date for True Grit from Christmas to December 22 in an effort to spur early buzz to ride the film well beyond the holiday sunset. 

Says Harris, “There’s something about a guy on a horse that has historically worked.”

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