Last week, Will Smith put his hands and feet into cement outside Grauman's Chinese Theatre to promote his new movie, "I Am Legend." This weekend, box-office results across the country cemented Smith's status as one of Hollywood's biggest draws.
His science-fiction thriller topped expectations and set a December opening-weekend record by taking in an estimated $76.5 million in North American ticket sales, Warner Bros. said Sunday.
The mark had been held by "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King," the trilogy finale that opened to $72.6 million in 2003.
"This shows us that Will Smith is the most popular actor in the world today," said Dan Fellman, Warner's president of domestic distribution. "Nobody expected us to beat 'Lord of the Rings.' "
The family-oriented musical comedy "Alvin and the Chipmunks," meanwhile, pulled in $45 million to also dwarf expectations, said distributor 20th Century Fox, giving the film industry a welcome one-two punch.
Box-office receipts were up 36% from the same period in 2006. They were also up for the first time since mid-November, raising hopes for a decent holiday season after dismal results this fall.
Based on studio estimates, weekend receipts in the U.S. and Canada totaled $163 million, research firm Media by Numbers said.
This weekend's only true dud was "The Golden Compass," which took in about $9 million domestically to rank No. 3, plunging 65% from its disappointing debut.
With $41 million in domestic ticket sales through 10 days, New Line Cinema's big-budget epic could end up well shy of $100 million in North America (though overseas it has fared better, already racking up $90 million).
"I Am Legend," rated PG-13, was seen as a crucial opening for both Warner Bros. and parent company Time Warner Inc., which also owns New Line.
Box-office revenue for Time Warner's film division had been softer than expected in the current quarter, according to Wall Street analysts, because of disappointing sales for the Warner Bros. holiday comedy "Fred Claus" and the sluggish start for "The Golden Compass."
Industry analysts expected "I Am Legend," co-financed by Warner's longtime partner Village Roadshow Pictures, to open with at least $45 million in sales and as much as $65 million.
The marketing campaign, not surprisingly, sold the film on Smith's shoulders with the tag line: "The last man on Earth is not alone."
With his broad and consistent appeal, Smith may be one of the last actors who merits the $20-million-plus in salary and profit participation that superstars often get, Hollywood executives agree.
He has headlined seven straight movies that opened at No. 1, mixing it up between action, comedy and social drama. Four of Smith's previous films topped $50 million in their first weekends, though his record had been 2004's "I, Robot" at $52.2 million.
Fellman said Warner Bros.' surveys showed that 57% of the opening-weekend audience was male and that crowds were evenly split between those older and younger than 25. The film drew strong turnouts from African Americans and Latinos, he said.
"I Am Legend" also got off to a robust start outside North America, Warner Bros. said.
The movie pulled in an estimated $20 million from eight Asian territories, including Japan, South Korea and Taiwan. It ranked No. 1 in all but Hong Kong (where the local film "Warlords" reigned).
Hoping to lessen the effect of piracy, Hollywood studios often open their movies in Asia before venturing elsewhere.
"Alvin and the Chipmunks," which Fox co-financed with Arnon Milchan's New Regency Productions, was expected to open at only about $20 million domestically.
The PG-rated movie was popular among parents looking to entertain their children for two hours, but it also played to a surprisingly wide audience.
Families with kids constituted about 52% of the crowds, Fox said. The movie skewed slightly female, especially among the under-12 set.
Said a giddy Chris Aronson, Fox's senior vice president of domestic distribution: "A 'Chipmunk' fever outbreak has occurred in North America."
Two pictures considered contenders for Oscars and other year-end honors fared well in their second-week expansions.
The Keira Knightley-James McAvoy romance "Atonement," from Universal Pictures' Focus Features arm, leaped into the top 10 even though it was showing at only 117 theaters.
The movie, which got a publicity boost last week from its seven Golden Globe nominations, averaged about $16,000 per theater.
The character-driven comedy "Juno," starring Ellen Page, just missed the top 10 after widening to 40 theaters for Fox Searchlight. The picture averaged a potent $36,000 per theater, staying ahead of the pace set by last year's breakout hit from the same distributor, "Little Miss Sunshine."
Opening in limited release, DreamWorks SKG's adaptation of the bestselling novel "The Kite Runner" averaged a solid $13,000 per theater at 35 locations, distributor Paramount Classics said.