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A hit romantic comedy and a viral phenomenom drive a big weekend at the box office

Couples3 One wide-release hit and one word-of-mouth sensation were enough to keep the movie business humming this weekend.

Universal's "Couples Retreat" collected more money than the four new movies that opened on the same weekend last year combined, helping to drive domestic ticket sales up 8.9%, according to Hollywood.com.

The romantic comedy starring Vince Vaughn sold a studio-estimated $35.3 million worth of tickets in the U.S. and Canada, a strong start given that its production budget was just over $70 million, according to a person involved in the film (a studio spokesman said it was around $60 million).

"Couples Retreat" is the first strong domestic opening for Universal since "Fast and Furious" all the way back in April. The studio has seen a string of disappointments, including "State of Play" and "Land of the Lost." That weak performance contributed to the ousting on Monday of Chairmen David Linde and Marc Shmuger. In a bit of Hollywood irony, a film produced and marketed under their watch turned out to be a hit just days after they left.

The movie was aggressively marketed by Universal, taking advantage of the wide-open weekend and a dearth of romantic comedies in the market. Despite negative reviews, audience gave "Couples Retreat" a B, according to market research firm CinemaScore, and ticket sales rose from Friday to Saturday, a sign of good buzz that signals the movie could ultimately gross well over $100 million domestically.

ParanormalActivity2 Costly marketing wasn't the driver of Paramount's stealth hit "Paranormal Activity," which set a record for the highest weekend gross ever for a film playing at fewer than 200 theaters. The studio has spent only about $2 million on advertising so far, relying instead on Internet buzz and word of mouth that started in college markets where the movie debuted two weeks ago.

The movie also has benefited from promotion on radio stations, where Paramount has given away tickets, and on the studio's corporate sibling MTV cable networks.

The low-budget horror film, which Paramount's former subsidiary DreamWorks originally bought with the intention of remaking it, sold $7.1 million worth of tickets this weekend, averaging a phenomenal $44,162 at 160 theaters. This was the first weekend it didn't play only at midnight shows, demonstrating broader appeal than the late-night horror crowd, although later shows continued to be the strongest.

Paramount will expand "Paranormal Activity" to several hundred more theaters over the next two weeks.

Here are the top 10 movies at the domestic box office, according to studio estimates and Hollywood.com:

1. "Couples Retreat" (Universal/Relativity): Opened to $35.3 million.

2. "Zombieland" (Sony/Relativity): Declined 39% on its second weekend to $15 million. Domestic total: $47.8 million.

3. "Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs" (Sony): Dropped 24% on its fourth weekend, collecting $12 million. Total ticket sales in U.S. and Canada: $96.3 million.

4. "Toy Story & Toy Story 2 3-D" (Disney): Fell 39% on the second weekend of its two-week run to $7.7 million. Domestic total is $22.7 million.

5. "Paranormal Activity" (Paramount): $7.1 million as it expanded to 160 theaters on its third weekend. Total gross: $8.3 million.

6. "Surrogates" (Disney): $4.1 million, off 43% on its third weekend, bringing its domestic total to $32.6 million.

7. "The Invention of Lying" (Warner Bros./Radar/MRC): $3.4 million on its second weekend, a decline of 52%. Total domestic gross: $12.3 million.

8. "Whip It" (Fox Searchlight): Dropped 40% to $2.8 million on its second weekend. Domestic ticket sales: $8.8 million.

9. "Capitalism: A Love Story" (Overture/Paramount): Fell 39% on its second weekend to $2.7 million. Total domestic gross: $9.1 million.

10. "Fame" (MGM/Lakeshore): Off 45% on its third weekend to $2.6 million, bringing its total ticket sales to $20 million.

-- Ben Fritz

Top photo: Carlos Ponce, Vince Vaughn and Malin Akerman in "Couples Retreat." Credit: John Johnson / Universal Pictures

Bottom photo: Katie Featherston and Micah Sloat in "Paranormal Activity." Credit: Paramont Pictures

 
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