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Film with longest reach will win feel-good battle

January 11, 2008|Josh Friedman | Times Staff Writer

This weekend's box-office scramble looks like a photo finish between three feel-good comedies targeted at different audiences.

"Juno" is indie. "First Sunday" is urban. And "The Bucket List" is AARP.

With Hollywood executives expecting each movie to rake in about $15 million, the sprint for No. 1 will be determined by which film appeals furthest beyond its core constituency.

Warner Bros.' "The Bucket List" -- starring Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman as cancer patients who cut loose with a list of things to do before kicking the proverbial bucket -- has been a crowd pleaser since Christmas at 16 theaters in the New York, Los Angeles and Toronto areas. Today it widens to 2,900 theaters.

The studio was stoked by Thursday's consumer tracking surveys that showed rising interest in the movie not only from aging baby boomers, as expected, but also from 25- to 35-year-olds. Strong ticket sales at suburban theaters from Irvine to the New York area in the first two weeks also bode well for the nationwide expansion.

"If you do big numbers in Orange County and Long Island, there's no reason you shouldn't do the same thing in Denver, St. Louis and Dallas," said Dan Fellman, the studio's president of domestic distribution. "We're pretty psyched."

Critics have dismissed "The Bucket List," a $45-million production directed by Rob Reiner, as schmaltzy and manipulative. But audiences have responded to the film's live-to-the-hilt message -- and to the first screen pairing of two acting icons. Last weekend it pulled in an impressive $20,000 per theater.

By going wide at Christmastime, Universal Pictures got dibs on older audiences with its $75-million budget comedy-drama "Charlie Wilson's War," starring Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts. Though never a smash, "Charlie" has shown sturdy legs at the box office and could end up north of $75 million in U.S. ticket sales.

Warner Bros. took the slower route with "The Bucket List," partly because of the crowded holiday market and also to percolate word of mouth. In exit surveys, audiences have responded far more favorably than reviewers, Fellman said.

Regardless of whether it ranks No. 1 this weekend, the movie could end a long box-office slump for Reiner. Since the 1992 military drama "A Few Good Men," which grossed $141 million domestically, most of his films have sputtered.

"Juno," meanwhile, is well on its way to becoming the first $100-million hit for specialty distributor Fox Searchlight, a News Corp. company launched in 1994. In the sixth week of its roll-out, it might earn that coveted marketing title: "The No. 1 Movie in America."

The wry $7.5-million-budget comedy, starring Ellen Page as a sassy, pregnant teen, has momentum as it expands to about 2,500 theaters. "Juno," last weekend's box-office runner-up, jumped ahead of Walt Disney Co.'s "National Treasure: Book of Secrets" to top the daily charts Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday.

The critically acclaimed picture has already crossed over beyond teens and metropolitan hipsters, packing houses in such places as Grand Rapids, Mich., and Wilkes-Barre, Pa.

When it widened last weekend, it slipped only an average of 3% from the previous weekend at theaters holding the film over, Searchlight said, as opposed to the 40% to 50% drop-offs that are the industry norm.

"First Sunday," made by Sony Pictures' Screen Gems division for about $20 million, is aimed at African American audiences but could play as a broad comedy.

"Funny is funny," said Jeff Blake, Sony's president of worldwide marketing and distribution. "You could expect crossover business."

The PG-13 movie stars Ice Cube, whose successes include "Friday," "Barbershop" and "Are We There Yet?" -- along with their requisite sequels. In other words, if this one clicks, don't be stunned to see "Second Sunday" and "Sunday After That" in the future.

Cube and Tracy Morgan play pals who are clueless and desperate enough to rob a church, and comedian Katt Williams portrays an eccentric choir director who tries to redeem them.

When Sony's road-trip comedy "Are We There Yet?" opened in January 2005 as an unexpected No. 1 with $18.6 million at the box office, the audience was more white than black, the studio said, and heavily Latino as well. That may have been because it was a PG, Chevy Chase-style family film. "First Sunday" is a tad edgier.

Even so, the studio believes that it can pull about 35% of the business for "First Sunday" from outside the black community. That sort of breadth helped make the dance drama "Stomp the Yard" and the family film "This Christmas" highly profitable, said Marc Weinstock, Screen Gems' marketing chief.

To market outside the urban audience, Morgan promoted the movie this week in vignettes that aired with "30 Rock." Cube touted it on a recent CBS football telecast. And Screen Gems sponsored this week's "Real World: Sydney" finale on MTV with a clip.

Two other movies also open wide today.

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