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Christmas Box Office: Little Fockers Opens Soft, True Grit Sets Record for a Western, Tron: Legacy Struggles

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I remember being genuinely shocked at the success of Meet the Fockers back in Christmas 2004. It had been well over four years since the original and, box office aside, it wasn't a film that cried out for a sequel. I figured that no one cared, that it had been too long since the original, and that the sequel would do token business but no more. For the second time in 2004, I was dead-wrong. Twice that year, sequels that didn't have all that much pre-release buzz around them exploded out of the gate and kept going for the next few months. The other was Shrek 2, which opened out of nowhere on the pre-Memorial Day weekend to $108 million over three days and $128 million over five, to end up winning the year with an astonishing $441 million. Meet the Fockers grossed $46 million over the three-day portion of Christmas 2004 and a stunning $70 million in its five-day opening weekend. The film kept on rolling, ending up with $279 million domestic and $516 million worldwide. That makes Meet the Fockers the second-biggest live-action comedy in US history (behind Home Alone with $281 million) and the world's highest-grossing live-action comedy ever. So when I say that there wasn't all that much buzz for Little Fockers, that really didn't mean much in theory. Except this time, when it did.
Little Fockers was indeed the number one movie over the long Christmas weekend. The would-be finale of the Fockers trilogy ("This Christmas... the journey ends.") pulled in $30.8 million over the Fri-Sun portion and $45 million over the five-day opening weekend. Amusingly enough, the critically-hammered comedy sequel did a majority of its business over the last two days of release, where it grossed $14.6 million on Christmas Day and $11.6 million on Sunday. Going into Christmas Day, the film had grossed just $19 million in three days. The big business over the last two days turns this from a genuine flop into a question of whether moviegoers just waited until it was convenient to see the film. I've often warned about opening films on Wednesday that aren't uber-anticipated, as most moviegoers don't need to rush out on a weekday to see a given picture. We'll know more as the film plays over the last week of the year. But for now, the film is indeed a disappointment.

The film pulled in 32% less over the five-day weekend than Meet the Fockers did ($46m 3-day/$70m 5-day) on the same weekend back in 2004. The picture cost $100 million and reeked of post-production chaos, with reshoots and test screenings galore, plus Dustin Hoffman being brought back in at the last minute to 'save the picture'. The trailers weren't the least bit funny, with clips from the first two films, Viagra jokes and replays of the first film's gimmicks from all the way back in 2000 that made the film feel that much more desperate and lazy. Little Fockers scored a meager 'B-' from Cinemascore, meaning that the film was indeed as unfunny as it looked and that the picture will likely die immediately after the holiday season. $100 million is likely but no longer a certainty. This appears another clear-cut case of a franchise being extended one film too many. It appears that we can add the Fockers epic to the surprisingly long list of franchises that left us this year.

Second place went to the critical winner of the weekend, the Coen brothers' remake/adaptation of True Grit. The critically-acclaimed Jeff Bridges/Matt Damon/Hailee Steinfeld western scored a dynamite $24.8 million over three days and $36.8 million over five days. This is the biggest opening weekend ever for a traditional western, far eclipsing the normal $14-$17 million openings for westerns like 3:10 to Yuma, Open Range, Unforgiven, and Maverick. This is also easily the biggest Coen brothers opening weekend ever, surpassing the $19 million opening of Burn After Reading. It's already $1 million away from the $39 million total gross of Intolerable Cruelty (their fourth-biggest hit) and should surpass Burn After Reading's $60 million gross by the end of next weekend and the $74 million gross of No Country For Old Men a week or two after that.

$100 million is a strong likelihood for the $38 million-budgeted western, especially with the film appearing on many a best-of-2010 list (not mine, but that's another story). The film scored a B+ from Cinemascore, with an A- from the under-25 crowd. It played 65% male and 70% over 30. This is a huge win for everyone (the Coens, Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon, surefire Oscar nominee Hailee Steinfeld). Jeff Bridges just scored his second and third biggest opening weekends ever over the last two weeks, and if True Grit can out-gross Seabiscuit ($120 million), then Bridges will have his second and third-highest grossing films ever in a five day span. While we may bemoan the famously idiosyncratic filmmakers tackling a somewhat generic genre piece, it's a rock-solid piece of big studio entertainment and pays for at least a couple more personal projects like A Serious Man.

Third place went to that other Jeff Bridges would-be blockbuster, Tron: Legacy. The film did use the Christmas weekend to avoid complete collapse, but it is not a very happy longterm picture. The um... critically-divisive sci-fi picture dropped 56% over the three-day weekend, grossing $19 million in its second frame. That gives the film $87 million after ten days. The comparison I've been using for the last week has been King Kong, which opened a little softer than expected but held on over the holiday to eventually cross $200 million. Tron: Legacy grossed about $1 million less on its second weekend and currently sits $21 million behind Peter Jackson's pet project. I bent over backwards to be fair last weekend, not wanting my distaste for the film to color my perceptions of its opening weekend. But the holiday legs are not strong enough to get this $200-300 million picture to profitability without uber-strong overseas numbers, which so far have not been coming (worldwide total is $111 million so far). While it's not a major financial disaster yet, numbers like this will not get a sequel greenlit.

The only other major opener was the Jack Black comedy Gulliver's Travels, which opened on Saturday. Its two-day total was just $6.3 million, bringing a fitting end to a year when studios looked at Avatar's success and screamed 'Everything must be in 3D!'. As I've said countless times, it's the movie, stupid. And Gulliver's Travels looked awful, with nary a single laugh in the marketing materials and horrible reviews to match. Black still has the Kung Fu Panda franchise to rely on (the second picture opens next May), but his career as a live-action leading man is pretty much finished. The psychological horror film Black Swan finally expanded to true wide release over the weekend, grossing $6.2 million on 1400 screens. It's not a massively successful expansion per-se, but the ballet thriller and surefire Oscar contender has already grossed $28.6 million with the entire awards season still to go (congrats to Ms. Portman on her engagement/pregnancy, such free publicity won't hurt the film either). Also likely to figure into the Oscar race is The Fighter, which grossed another $7.8 million over the three-day portion of the weekend. Again, it's not an earth-shattering hold (-37%), but the $25 million boxing drama has already amassed $26.6 million.

The King's Speech finally debuted in somewhat wide release on Christmas Day, as the theoretical Oscar front-runner finally braved the actual paying audience, as opposed to wracking up big per-screen averages on under 50 screens week after week. The Colin Firth period piece grossed a solid $4.4 million on 700 screens, bringing its cum to $8.3 million. The film is sure to get showered with Oscar nominations, so this should be a long and leggy run for the $15 million drama. There were a few limited debuts this holiday season as well. Sophia Coppola's Somewhere debuted with $17,000 per each of its seven screens. The Illusionist, otherwise known as the cartoon that might steal Toy Story 3's Best Animated Film Oscar, opened with $38,595 on three screens. The Gwyneth Paltrow melodrama Country Strong debuted with just $17,300 on two screens over three-days and $30,000 for five days. From a marketing standpoint, the film smelled like a cash-in on Jeff Bridges's Crazy Heart, and the unintentionally funny preview literally played like a satire of Oscar-bait trailers.

For more, including holdover box office and a peek at the final weekend of the year, read the rest of this article at Mendelson's Memos.