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Lionsgate planning aggressive rollout for 'Precious' after huge start

November 8, 2009 | 12:51 pm

PreciousMost years, at least one independent movie opens in the fall with dreams of Oscar glory and ends up a box-office sensation. This year, it's looking like that movie is "Precious," if Lionsgate's expansion plans pay off.

The Sundance award-winning, critically acclaimed adaptation of the 1996 book "Push" opened to an outstanding $1.8 million at just 18 theaters in four cities this weekend. Its average take of $100,000 is the highest ever for a movie at more than six locations. The indie studio achieved the remarkable debut with a hybrid strategy of playing theaters that targeted affluent moviegoers likely drawn by the movie's rave reviews and theaters in African American communities, where endorsements from Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry likely helped.

A little more than 50% of ticket buyers were African American, and a much more lopsided 68% were female, according to exit polls. Moviegoers gave it an average grade of A, a sign that it will have excellent word-of-mouth.

With any independent movie, however, it's never guaranteed that niche appeal, no matter how strong, will carry over to a more mainstream audience. Last November, for instance, Fox Searchlight debuted "Slumdog Millionaire" to $360,000 at 10 theaters, a solid opening but well below that of "Precious." It went on to gross more than $141 million, helped by a best-picture Oscar, a prize that many think is a possibility for "Precious." But many other movies, like "Melinda and Melinda," "Lust, Caution" and "The Aristocrats" started very strong in limited release but ultimately grossed less than $10 million.

Lionsgate's plan is to take advantage of this weekend's momentum quickly. Friday, it will open in five new cities -- Philadelphia, Washington, Houston, Dallas and San Francisco -- while expanding in the cities where it's currently playing, bringing its total theater count to more than 100. One week later, on Nov. 20, the movie will start playing nationwide. That's an aggressive strategy. "Brokeback Mountain," another movie that many doubted could appeal to broad crowds, didn't expand to more than 500 theaters until its sixth weekend. It ultimately grossed $83 million.

The studio paid $5.5 million to acquire "Precious" at the Sundance Film Festival this year, an investment that seems certain to pay off handsomely, even if the movie doesn't turn into a monster hit.

Disney also is hoping for a strong performance in the weeks to come for its new movie that opened this weekend, albeit for different reasons. "A Christmas Carol" opened to just $31 million domestically, a surprisingly weak start given its hefty production budget of nearly $200 million and substantial marketing push.

The very similar "Polar Express," another motion-capture animated holiday film directed by Robert Zemeckis, opened in November and played well through the holidays. That movie cost less to produce, however, and got an average grade of A+ from moviegoers, according to market research firm CinemaScore. "A Christmas Carol" garnered a less impressive B+, a sign that word-of-mouth won't be as good.

Its disappointing debut is leading many to question whether Disney opened the movie too far in front of the holiday season and whether star Jim Carrey is no longer a box-office draw.

The soft start for "A Christmas Carol" drove down overall ticket sales 12% from a year ago, when "Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa" opened, according to Hollywood.com.

Couples3 Sony's decision to extend the run of "This Is It" beyond the announced two weeks looked like a smart one this weekend as the Michael Jackson movie dropped only 40% on its second weekend, a modest drop for a concert film. Ticket sales for the genre have historically been front loaded.

The most impressive hold of the weekend was Universal's "Couples Retreat." On its fifth weekend in theaters, ticket sales for the romantic comedy were virtually flat from a week ago, a rarity in the business. It is now very close to grossing more than $100 million domestically.

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

1. "A Christmas Carol" (Disney): Opened to $31 million domestically, $12 million from 18 foreign countries.

2. "This Is It" (Sony): Declined 40% on its second weekend to $14 million. Domestic total is $57.9 million, foreign is $128.6 million.

3. "The Men Who Stare at Goats" (Overture/BBC/Winchester Capital): Debuted to $13.3 million.

4. "The Fourth Kind" (Universal/Gold Circle): Launched with $12.5 million.

5. "Paranormal Activity" (Paramount): Fell 48% on its seventh weekend to $8.6 million, bringing its domestic total to $97.4 million.

6. "The Box" (Warner Bros./Radar/MRC): $7.9 million opening.

7. "Couples Retreat" (Universal/Relativity): Pulled off the amazing feat of not declining at all from last weekend, grossing $6.4 million once again. U.S. and Canadian ticket sales after five weeks have reached $96 million. Overseas, it has collected $28.8 million in 18 territories so far.

8. "Law Abiding Citizen" (Overture/Film Department): Dropped only 17% on its fourth weekend to $6.2 million. Domestic total: $60.9 million.

9. "Where the Wild Things Are" (Warner Bros./Village Roadshow/Legendary): Fell 29% on its fourth weekend to $4.2 million. $69.3 million in domestic ticket sales so far.

10. "Astro Boy" (Summit/Imagi): $2.6 million on its third weekend, down 25%. $15.1 million domestic total.

-- Ben Fritz

Top photo: Gabourey Sidibe and Mo'Nique in "Precious." Credit: Anne Marie Fox / Lionsgate

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

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