You can't stop the Sony Pictures team on Super Bowl weekend. You can only hope to contain them.
For the seventh straight year, the weekend's No. 1 movie belonged to the studio, as the horror flick "The Messengers" topped the romantic comedy "Because I Said So" to lead the U.S. and Canadian box office.
The PG-13 movie, produced by Sam Raimi's Ghost House Pictures and released through Sony's youth-oriented Screen Gems label, hauled in a better-than-expected $14.5 million in its opening weekend, according to Sunday's studio estimates.
"Super Bowl weekend is kind of a party weekend, and these kinds of films get the party started," said Rory Bruer, president of domestic distribution at Sony.
Bruer noted that since the studio's streak started in 2001, four of its No. 1 movies have been in the horror genre, including last year's remake of "When a Stranger Calls."
Sony has been capitalizing on a weekend many studios scrupulously avoid. Movie attendance suffers every Super Bowl Sunday because of the big game.
"The Messengers," which cost $16 million to produce, was directed by the Pang brothers, the Hong Kong twins who developed a following with such Asian thrillers as "The Eye" and "Bangkok Dangerous."
Starring John Corbett, Dylan McDermott, Penelope Ann Miller and Kristen Stewart, "The Messengers" is a tale of paranormal terror on a North Dakota sunflower farm.
As horror films often do, it skewed young and slightly female. The audience was estimated at 53% under 21 and 53% female.
Teenage girls are more likely than boys to go to theaters in groups of three or four, Bruer said.
"Because I Said So," starring Diane Keaton as a meddling mom and Mandy Moore as her klutzy daughter looking for love, opened at No. 2 with an estimated take of $13 million.
Produced by Gold Circle Films and distributed through Universal Pictures, the movie opened about as analysts had expected despite being skewered by reviewers.
Universal marketed the movie toward women as "counter-programming" to the Super Bowl, using websites such as IVillage.com and TV outlets including the Oxygen network to spread the word. The film drew an audience estimated at 82% female and 61% age 30 and older.
In audience surveys, 80% of respondents rated the picture "excellent" or "very good," which bodes well for word of mouth, Universal said.
All three of the major movies that opened last week had sizable drops this weekend.
Twentieth Century Fox's farce "Epic Movie," last weekend's leader, declined 56% to finish at No. 3; Universal's action comedy "Smokin' Aces" sagged 57% to No. 5 and Sony's romantic comedy "Catch and Release" fell 65% to No. 10 or No. 11 (depending on today's final tally) in a virtual tie with "The Queen."
"Night at the Museum" remained strong, ranking No. 4 in its seventh weekend and passing $225 million domestically during its run. The comic fantasy starring Ben Stiller was the only movie that played in more than 3,000 theaters.
Picturehouse's "Pan's Labyrinth," an Oscar contender for best foreign-language film, expanded to more than 1,000 locations for the first time and raised its total haul to $21.7 million through six weekends.
The dark fantasy passed 1993's "Like Water for Chocolate" to become the highest-grossing Spanish-language film ever in the U.S. and Canada.
Sony had a strong weekend internationally as well as domestically.
The James Bond thriller "Casino Royale" opened at $6 million in China -- one of the best openings ever there for a Hollywood movie.
The father-son drama "The Pursuit of Happyness" grossed an estimated $16 million from various overseas territories, displacing "Night at the Museum" as the No. 1 movie abroad.
"Night at the Museum" has been hurt in Britain and Germany in recent weeks by a spat stemming from Fox's plan to issue the DVD on April 2, in time for Easter sales.
The plan has angered theater chains determined to preserve an unofficial four-month theater-to-DVD release window so that video sales won't undermine attendance. In Britain this weekend, most major chains pulled the hit from theaters in protest.
Even so, the movie is still playing in 50 countries, and Fox expects it to eventually gross about $550 million worldwide.
Overall, U.S. and Canadian ticket sales were down from the comparable weekend in 2006 for the third straight weekend, according to research firm Media by Numbers. Year-to-date receipts are down 3% and attendance is off about 5%.
Next weekend again pits comedy against thriller as the Eddie Murphy vehicle "Norbit," from Paramount Pictures, opens against MGM's serial killer prequel "Hannibal Rising."
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Preliminary results (in millions) in the U.S. and Canada, based on studio projections:
*--* Movie 3-day gross Total The Messengers $14.5 $14.5
Because I Said So 13.0 13.0
Epic Movie 8.2 29.4
Night at the Museum 6.8 225.4
Smokin' Aces 6.3 25.0
Stomp the Yard 4.2 56.0
Dreamgirls 4.0 92.8
Pan's Labyrinth 3.7 21.7
The Pursuit of Happyness 3.1 157.4
The Queen 2.7 45.5
*--* 3-day gross Change (in millions) from 2006 $94.0 -11.0%
Year-to-date gross Change (in billions) from 2006 $0.78 -3.0%
*--* Source: Media by Numbers Los Angeles Times