On Oscar weekend, Tyler Perry's "Madea Goes to Jail" produced some needed gold for struggling Lions Gate Entertainment Corp.
The new comedy shot to No. 1 at the box office with three-day estimated ticket sales of $41.1 million, according to film tracker Media by Numbers.
The movie's big opening helped extend Hollywood's winning streak this year. Total box-office sales since Jan. 1 have reached $1.65 billion, up 23% from the same period last year, said Paul Dergarabedian, head of Media by Numbers.
With the economy in dire straits, "people just need to get away for a while," said Rory Bruer, president of worldwide distribution for Sony Pictures.
That may be a classic Hollywood come-on, but it's working for the studios and theater owners this year.
Women continue to lead the charge through the theater turnstiles: The audience for "Madea Goes to Jail" was 71% female, said Steve Rothenberg, head of domestic distribution for the studio subsidiary, Lionsgate.
Women also have driven ticket sales for Warner Bros.' romantic comedy "He's Just Not That Into You," which came out Feb. 6. The film took in $8.5 million over the weekend, down 56% from the previous weekend but still enough to rank it No. 4.
Also among the top movies this weekend: "Taken," the Liam Neeson thriller from 20th Century Fox, was No. 2, with $11.4 million in sales; and Focus Features' 3-D fantasy "Coraline" came in at No. 3, with $11 million.
At No. 5 was Fox Searchlight's acclaimed "Slumdog Millionaire," which jumped from No. 9 the previous week, ahead of the Oscars.
But far ahead of the pack, actor-director-producer Perry, who plays the feisty matriarch Madea, ruled the marquees for the weekend.
The PG-13-rated "Madea Goes to Jail" had the biggest opening for a Lionsgate flick, topping the studio's $33.6-million take in the first weekend of the "Saw III" gore fest in 2006.
"We're very happy," Rothenberg said. Perry "has a very loyal audience."
The once-homeless Perry is building a rich franchise with Madea. The box-office take for his new film was nearly double what his first Madea feature, "Diary of a Mad Black Woman," brought in on its opening weekend four years ago.
Perry's films generally have cost less than $20 million each to produce.
The audience for "Madea Goes to Jail" was 72% African American, pretty standard for a Perry movie, Rothenberg said.
But Media by Numbers' Dergarabedian said the film's strong opening could attract broader viewership in the weeks ahead.
"I think the numbers will cause the general audience to sit up and take notice," he said.
The success of "Madea Goes to Jail" is welcome news for parent company Lions Gate, which saw its stock plunge this year after the studio reported a huge loss for its fiscal third quarter.
Also, corporate raider Carl Icahn has been boosting his stake in the firm in recent weeks, and now owns almost 13%. Some analysts believe Icahn wants to push Lions Gate to sell itself to a bigger studio.
Lionsgate studio has distributed all seven of Perry's films. It also has raked in cash from the "Saw" franchise.
For this weekend, at least, comedy trumped blood and guts: Warner's slasher flick "Friday the 13th," which opened at No. 1 last weekend with $42.2 million in sales, slid to No. 6 this weekend with $7.8 million.
In the thriller category, "Taken" remained far ahead of Sony/Columbia's "The International," which had sales of $4.5 million, down from $10 million the previous week.
" 'Taken' is the thriller of choice" for audiences, Dergarabedian said. He noted that the film, which opened a month ago, actually moved up in the rankings this weekend from the No. 3 slot a week earlier. Cumulative revenue is nearing the $100-million mark.
Besides "Madea," the only other film to open this weekend was the Sony/Screen Gems teen comedy "Fired Up." It came in at No. 9 with $6 million in ticket sales.
Among longer-running films, the comedy "Paul Blart: Mall Cop" continues to deliver a winning brand of escapism for Sony/Columbia: The film brought in $7 million for the weekend, bringing its six-week total to $121.5 million.
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Preliminary results in the U.S. and Canada, based on studio projections:
*--* Movie 3-day gross Total Weeks (studio) (millions) (millions) 1 Madea Goes to Jail $41.1 $41.1 1 (Lionsgate) 2 Taken (20th Century Fox) 11.4 95.2 4 3 Coraline (Focus) 11.0 53.4 3 4 He's Just Not That Into 8.5 70.1 3 You (Warner Bros.) 5 Slumdog Millionaire 8.0 98.0 15 (Fox Searchlight) 6 Friday the 13th (Warner 7.8 55.0 2 Bros.) 7 Confessions of a 7.0 27.7 2 Shopaholic (Disney) 8 Paul Blart: Mall Cop 7.0 121.4 6 (Sony/Columbia) 9 Fired Up (Sony/Screen 6.0 6.0 1 Gems) 10 The International 4.5 17.0 2 (Sony/Columbia) *--*
*--* 3-day gross Change Year-to-date gross Change (in millions) from 2008 (in billions) From 2008 $142 +29.5% $1.65 +23.3% *--*
*--* Note: A movie may be shown on more than one screen at each venue. Source: Media by Numbers Los Angeles Times *--*