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First look: 'Christmas Carol' weak, 'Precious' soars

November 8, 2009 |  9:13 am

"A Christmas Carol"

Audiences said a surprising "humbug" to big-budget family fare this weekend while embracing one of the most grim and serious movies of the year.

Walt Disney Studios' nearly $200-million investment in producing its animated 3-D version of "A Christmas Carol" opened to a weak $31 million this weekend, according to studio estimates, while Lionsgate's "Precious" broke records by selling $1.8 million worth of tickets at just 18 theaters.

The "Christmas Carol" launch was particularly disappointing for Disney given the hype generated by its marketing and publicity machine, star Jim Carrey and the benefit of 55% of its theaters playing the movie on 3-D screens, which carry a ticket price surcharge. (Nearly three-quarters of ticket sales came from theaters playing "A Christmas Carol" in 3-D.)

The opening weekend number is just $400,000 more than what director Robert Zemeckis' last 3-D motion-capture animated movie, "The Polar Express," grossed in its first five days after opening on a Wednesday in 2004, when ticket prices were substantially lower.

Last year on the same weekend, DreamWorks Animation's "Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa" debuted to $63.1 million, demonstrating that it is possible to launch a family movie to significantly better business in early November.

The news for "A Christmas Carol" was somewhat better overseas, where the debut grossed $18 million in 12 markets, led by Mexico and British. Disney reported that the total is 50% more than what "The Polar Express" opened to in the same countries. The studio is now left to hope that future foreign openings will be strong and that it will decline slowly domestically, although turning it into a financial success after such a weak start will be tough.

Meanwhile, Lionsgate's "Precious" broke records by generating a per-theater opening average of $100,000, one of the highest of all time and the highest ever for any movie playing more than six theaters. It opened this weekend in Los Angeles, New York, Chicago and Atlanta.

Many in Hollywood and even at Lionsgate, which acquired the movie for $5.5 million after it won three top prizes at the Sundance Film Festival this year, wondered whether it would be too grim for audiences in a year when many serious dramas have struggled at the box office. But the independent studio's strategy of marketing to upscale audiences and a broad swath of African Americans through critical raves and endorsements from Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry clearly paid off.

Sony's Michael Jackson movie, "This Is It," held very well for a concert film, dropping 40% on its second weekend to $14 million domestically, good enough for second place at the box office. Most concert movies trail off quickly after a big opening, but "This Is It" appears to be generating strong word of mouth and repeat viewings, validating Sony's decision to extend the movie's run beyond the initially planned two weeks.

Thus far, the picture, for which Sony paid $60 million, has sold $57.9 million worth of tickets domestically and $128.6 million internationally.

Among the weekend's other new films, "The Men Who Stare at Goats" and "The Fourth Kind" had decent starts while "The Box" did not.

"Goats" collected a studio-estimated $13.3 million. Distributor Overture Films paid close to $5 million for domestic rights to the political comedy starring George Clooney, which cost $20 million to produce.

"The Fourth Kind," which Universal distributed for financier Gold Circle Films, opened to $12.5 million, a good start for the low-cost horror film.

But Warner Bros.' thriller "The Box," which it co-financed with Radar Pictures and Media Rights Capital at a cost of $25 million, debuted to just $7.9 million.

-- Ben Fritz

Photo: A scene from "A Christmas Carol." Credit: ImageMovers Digital