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Dear John Scores $32 Million for First Place, and Why Its Defeat of Avatar Isn't a Gender Politics Story

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Dear John opened at number one this weekend, with a stellar $30.4 million debut weekend. That gives the picture a mediocre 2.2x weekend multiplier, but the first three days alone puts the picture well ahead of its $25 million budget. Ironically, it was actually hit pretty hard by Super Bowl Sunday, as it dropped 61% from Saturday ($12.4 million) to Sunday (just $4.2 million).  Regardless, this is the biggest weekend in Super Bowl weekend history, as well as the biggest opening weekend of all-time for a pure romantic drama. The film played to an 84% female crowd, and 64% of the audience was under 21. This is the first real test of opening weekend mettle for Amanda Seyfried and Channing Tatum, and both passed with flying colors. Of course, this number raises new questions about how much credit Tatum deserved for the $54.7 million debut of GI Joe: The Rise of Cobra. Conversely, as I alluded to last September, one wonders how much better Jennifer's Body could have opened with had the marketing focused even a little on co-star Seyfried and not just Megan Fox.   This also makes Nicholas Sparks the first brand-name author since the mid-90s heyday of Michael Crichton, Stephen King, and John Grisham.  Regardless, this is a smashing debut and should weather the storm of Valentine's Day: The Movie as this far more serious love story will prove solid counter-programming to the overtly comedic all-star mush-fest (or as I've heard the film called: Gary Marshall Calls In All of His Favors Before He Dies: The Movie).

Yes, yes, Dear John dethroned Avatar at the top of the box office over Super Bowl weekend. Wow... a film's opening weekend managed to exceed another film's eighth weekend. I got into this in some detail in yesterday's box office piece, but I personally think that the whole 'Dear John beat Avatar' story is relatively pointless. And I certainly enjoy the irony of pundits jumping up and down over the fact that a very female-driven film defeated another film that itself was playing very well for women. Avatar writer/director James Cameron is a man. Dear John author Nicolas Sparks and director Lasse Hallstrom are also men. Both films involve (to differing degrees of emphasis) romantic drama in the shadow of war. Both films involve handsome but somewhat bland male leads (Sam Worthington and Channing Tatum) being out-acted and generally outclassed by their female partners (Zoe Saldana and Amanda Seyfried). Trying to spin the weekend's box office as 'the girls smacking down the boys on Super Bowl weekend' is not only relatively false, but awfully condescending and sexist to boot. It's basically saying: Wow, a 'girl movie' was able to compete in a male dominated marketplace, that's so shocking and no one could have predicted that cause girl movies are lame! Besides, we all know that Channing Tatum will walk away with the lion's share of the credit, just as the media bent over backwards to give Ryan Reynolds credit for The Proposal. Tatum will get his pick of franchises, while Seyfried will get to choose between being the token love interest/damsel in distress in one of said franchises or starring in another installment of I'm Nothing Without A Man.

But weep not for James Cameron, for Avatar still pulled in another $22.8 million. Having crossed the $600 million mark and overtaken Titanic as the top domestic grosser of all-time, Avatar now sits with a massive $629 million domestic gross. The film had its biggest weekend plunge yet, dropping a whole 26.9% in weekend eight. Still, the comparatively large drop lends credence to the idea that the film was playing very well with females, hence it was hurt by direct demo competition. The film's new worldwide total is a whopping $2.209 billion, or just short of the magic $2.39 billion mark (whereby it has doubled the worldwide take of every other film ever made save Titanic). I suppose if you wanted to nitpick, you could state that Avatar was number one for a mere seven weekends while Titanic was number one for fifteen weekends. As many of you probably recall, Titanic was number one all the way up until April 3rd, when it was dethroned by Lost In Space (quick - what are the two connections between Lost in Space and Dear John?). Like Avatar's close calls with Sherlock Holmes and The Book of Eli, Titanic actually lost the Friday race three times during its spree, to US Marshals, The Man in the Iron Mask, and the re-release of Grease respectively.

It now shares its top in the top-ten for consecutive number-one weekends with Ghostbusters and On Golden Pond, and the number 12 spot for total number one weekends with the Henry Fonda melodrama. What's slightly more troubling (relative to a picture that's already the biggest moneymaker of all time) is that Avatar actually came up short to Titanic's $23 million record for the biggest eighth weekend. By next weekend, barring a miracle, Avatar will start grossing less on a weekend to weekend basis than Titanic (the doomed ocean romancer actually went up 22% for a $28 million Valentine's Day-infused eighth weekend). Still, the movie is going to take a huge hit on March 5th anyway, when it loses its IMAX and many of its 3D screens to Tim Burton's Return to Oz, I mean Alice in Wonderland. The goal from here on out is to cross the fabled $700 million mark and try for $2.5 billion worldwide before all is said and done. One can only wonder how far Avatar could have climbed if not for the mandatory loss of so many of its screens.  Still, Avatar may have lost its number one weekend ranking, but the one-of-a-kind phenom is still 'king of the world' for all intents and purposes.

Third place went to the horribly-marketed From Paris with Love. The John Travolta/Jonathan Rhys Meyers action vehicle attempted to replicate the Super Bowl opening of Taken (same director), but Lionsgate forgot that 20th Century Fox did a bang-up job marketing the Liam Neeson vehicle, with a tense and provocative teaser that gave away almost nothing from the film's second and third acts. Lionsgate released a flurry of confused and off-putting trailers (John Travolta is: the Ugly American!) that couldn't decide whether to sell the ultra-violence or the comedy. Frankly the earlier film benefited just a touch from the widespread availability of DVD-quality bootlegs a month prior to the US release. Since the film played a little older than the normal downloading crowd, the youngsters had a month to tell their parents that grown-up star Liam Neeson's new action picture was all kinds of bad-ass. So Taken opened with $24.7 million while From Paris with Love opened with just $8.1 million. To quote Lionsgate's flagship character, 'game over'.

Martin Campbell's Edge of Darkness plunged a disturbing 60% in weekend two, meaning that it won't come close to its $80 million production budget. I finally saw the picture and it's better than I expected (the second half is awfully strong). But it's more a portrait of wrenching grief than an action picture or even a thriller. Point being, the ads tried to sell it as a hard action thriller and now everybody knows otherwise. Its second weekend was $6.8 million and the film now sits at $28.9 million. When all is said and done, this will be Mel Gibson's lowest-grossing vehicle since his directorial debut, The Man Without a Face (the dark, character-driven drama grossed $24 million in summer 1993). Oh well, better luck next time, Campbell and Gibson. The Tooth Fairy dropped 33% and now sits with $34 million, as does Legion. Last weekends other opener, When in Rome, fell 55%, leaving its ten-day total at $20.9 million. The Book of Eli crossed the $80 million mark, although $100 million may be out of reach. Still, as Denzel Washington vehicles go, this one ranks sixth at $82 million. Next on the list is the $88 million gross of Inside Man and the $91 million take of Crimson Tide, both of which are approachable. Oh, and Sherlock Holmes finally crossed the $200 million mark, so we'll see a sequel in the next couple years.

The biggest beneficiary of Oscar nominations was Crazy Heart, which capitalized on last week's nominations for stars Jeff Bridges (the likely winner for Best Actor) and Maggie Gyllenhaal by expanding to 819 screens. I still contend that opening this acclaimed country music drama on Super Bowl weekend may have hindered the potential of the film's wide release opening, but it still pulled in a decent $3.5 million, which leaves the $8 million picture with $11 million and a month to play wide before the awards are given out. The rest of the Oscar field was as expected. The more mainstream nominees (Up in the Air, The Blind Side, Avatar, The Lovely Bones, etc) were relatively unaffected. Many of the nominees are already on DVD (A Serious Man, Inglourious Basterds, Up, The Hurt Locker, District 9, etc). But those smallish films that could be helped (An Education, Precious, The Last Station) each received relatively large upswings at least in terms of pure weekend-to-weekend percentage changes.

Finally, there were a bazillion limited release openings this weekend, and none of them particularly impressed. Of note, The Red Riding Trilogy, Terribly Happy, Eyes Wide Open, and The Korean did $14,526,  $11,650, $6818, and $4,002 on their respective single screens while Frozen,  District 13: Ultimatum did a whopping $1,240 and $1,319 per in their respective 106 and nine-screen debuts. That's about all the news for this weekend. Join us around Monday evening for a holiday wrap-up of the Valentine's Day/President's Day long weekend, where the holdovers face off against three major new releases. Joe Johnston's delayed and much-fussed over The Wolfman opens against Valentine's Day. Plus Chris Columbus, the man who cast the Harry Potter series, attempts to launch a new young-adult fantasy franchise with Percy Jackson and The Olympians: The Lightning Thief.

Scott Mendelson