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Christmas gift for Hollywood: Biggest weekend in box office history

December 27, 2009 | 12:10 pm

Sherlock The movie industry finished a monster year with the biggest film-going weekend in recent history.

Estimated total theatrical receipts of $278 million from Friday through Sunday in the U.S. and Canada weren't just the largest ever recorded, according to Box Office at Hollywood.com,  but also the highest number of tickets ever sold in a three-day period, 37.3 million, since precise data started to be collected around 1985.

The next four biggest box-office weekends were all dominated by one picture that grossed well over $100 million -- "The Dark Knight," "The Twilight Saga: New Moon," and two "Pirates of the Caribbean" sequels. But the last three days smashed the record despite a No. 1 picture, "Avatar," that sold a comparatively modest $75 million worth of tickets.

This appears to be the first weekend ever, according to several studio executives, that three separate movies each grossed more than $50 million domestically.

All of the stars seemed to align for Hollywood as Christmas Day fell on a Friday, numerous strong movies debuted or had recently opened, and audiences had been flocking to theaters all year despite the recession.

"When you have so many great choices for everybody and it's this time of year, people just love going to the movies," said Nikki Rocco, president of Universal Pictures domestic distribution.

Of the five new movies opening or expanding across the country, all but one did well or extremely well. Warner Bros.' new version of "Sherlock Holmes," starring Robert Downey, Jr. and Jude Law, opened to a  strong $65.4 million and an audience that was evenly split between those over and under 30 and only slightly more male than female. In the 17 foreign markets where it also debuted, "Sherlock" collected an additional $26 million, with Holmes' home country, England, leading the way.

Fox's "Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel" collected $50.2 million over the weekend and $77.1 million since it debuted Wednesday. Its crowds were 70% families and heavily Latino. "The Squeakquel" also grossed $36.5 million from the 42 foreign markets where it launched. That's more than twice as much as the first "Alvin" opened to in the same countries in 2007.

ItsComplicated "It's Complicated" started with $22.1 million domestically, a solid debut for a romantic comedy from director Nancy Meyers. Paramount Pictures expanded its critically acclaimed George Clooney drama "Up in the Air" nationwide for the first time to a decent $11.8 million, bringing its gross so far to $24.5 million.

The only flop this weekend was "Nine," the big-screen adaptation of the Broadway musical from the Weinstein Co. and co-financier Relativity Media. The movie debuted around the country to just $5.5 million, bringing its total since last weekend to $5.9 million. The Weinstein Co. head of operations, David Glasser, said the studio will be pulling back the movie, which stars Daniel Day-Lewis, Penelope Cruz and Nicole Kidman, from smaller cities in the Midwest where it performed poorly and focus advertising on big coastal cities. "Nine" will need to perform extremely well in those markets and get more awards recognition to avoid being a dud for the financially troubled Weinstein Co. and Relativity, which together spent about $64 million, after the benefit of tax credits, to make the film.

The boom in moviegoing also benefited several pictures already in the market, most notably "Avatar," which saw ticket sales decline only 3% from its debut to $75 million. With $212.3 million domestically already, the costly James Cameron-directed 3-D epic is on its way to more than $400 million domestically. Overseas, it already has grossed a phenomenal $405 million, including $145 million this weekend in 108 markets.

Ticket sales for long-running hit "The Blind Side" actually rose 17%, while "Invictus" got a boost after two soft weekends with a 4% jump.  Disney's animated feature "The Princess and the Frog," however, experienced the biggest drop of any movie in the top 10, 29%, a sign that it's not recovering well from a so-so debut.

Still, the coming week should be lucrative even for movies that struggled this weekend. With kids out of school, many people off work and no new films debuting, theaters are expected to be packed through next Sunday.

"Every day this week will be like a Saturday," said Bert Livingston, senior vice president of domestic distribution for Fox.

"It's Complicated" got an average grade of A- from audiences, according to market research firm CinemaScore, while "Alvin" got an A. That means those movies should benefit the most from word-of-mouth in the coming days. "Sherlock" and "Up in the Air" both got Bs, an average grade from typically generous moviegoers. That could be a cause for concern for Paramount, since "Up in the Air" has gotten extremely positive reviews.

At four theaters in Los Angeles and New York, the Terry Gilliam-directed "Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus," which stars Johnny Depp and the late Heath Ledger, opened to a so-so $130,000.

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

1. "Avatar" (Fox/Dune/Ingenious): $75 million, down just 3% from its opening and $145 million from foreign countries. $212.3 million domestic total. $405 million international total.

2. "Sherlock Holmes" (Warner Bros./Village Roadshow): $65.4 million debut. $26 million internationally.

3. "Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel" (Fox/New Regency): $50.2 million over the weekend, $77.1 million since Wednesday in the U.S. and Canada. Overseas, it opened to $36.5 million.

4. "It's Complicated" (Universal/Relativity): Opened to $22.1 million and an additional $5.4 million from 11 foreign countries.

5. "Up in the Air" (Paramount/Montecito): $11.8 million on its first weekend nationwide. $24.5 million including its last three weeks in limited release.

6. "The Blind Side" (Warner Bros./Alcon): $11.7 million on its sixth weekend, up 17%. $184.4 million total.

7. "The Princess and the Frog" (Disney): $8.7 million, down 29% on its fifth weekend (third weekend in wide release). $63.4 million so far in the U.S. and Canada.

8. "Nine" (Weinstein/Relativity): $5.5 million this weekend, $5.9 million total including its first week in four theaters.

9. "Did You Hear About the Morgans?" (Sony/Relativity): Fell 24% on its second weekend to $5 million, bringing its domestic take so far to $16 million.

10. "Invictus" (Warner Bros./Spyglass): $4.4 million, up 4% on its third weekend. $23.4 million so far domestically.

-- Ben Fritz

Top photo: Jude Law and Robert Downey Jr. in "Sherlock Holmes." Credit: Alex Bailey / Warner Bros.

Second photo: Meryl Streep, Steve Martin, Alec Baldwin and Lake Bell in "It's Complicated." Credit: Melinda Sue Gordon / Universal Pictures

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