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'Gran Torino' motors to No. 1 at the box office

Clint Eastwood marks a personal best as the wide release of his drama earns an estimated $29 million. In second is Kate Hudson and Anne Hathaway's 'Bride Wars.'

January 12, 2009|Claudia Eller

"Gran Torino" has certainly made Clint Eastwood's day.

In his latest movie, the 78-year-old Hollywood icon plays one of the grouchiest characters in screen history. But the actor-director is surely smiling now. As his R-rated drama expanded across the U.S. this weekend, it raced past the competition to become the top-grossing film in the box-office derby with an estimated $29 million.

This marks the biggest opening of any Eastwood movie in wide release, far surpassing the $18-million three-day bow of his "Space Cowboys" in 2000, according to box-office tracking firm Media by Numbers.

Warner Bros.' "Gran Torino" is a redemptive tale starring Eastwood as a cynical Korean War vet bent on reforming his next-door neighbor, an Asian teen who tries to steal his prized 1972 car. The film had generated strong business -- $11 million -- in limited release since mid-December. Some industry watchers were skeptical the film could lure big crowds beyond die-hard Clint fans once it expanded from 84 to 2,808 theaters.

The weekend's turnout for "Gran Torino" not only is a testament to the veteran actor's enduring appeal among his customary fan base of older moviegoers but also shows his popularity among the under-30 crowd. Word of mouth built as Warner Bros. slowly rolled out the movie over the last month.

"What the platform release has done is take his core audience and broadened it out to an audience he hasn't had for years -- young males," said Warner Bros. distribution chief Dan Fellman, referring to fans of Eastwood's decades-old "Dirty Harry" films.

Also surprising, noted Fellman, was that 52% of the audience were women, who ordinarily account for half or fewer of those who see Eastwood's movies. Even the weekend's NFL playoff games seemed to have had little effect on those wanting to see the movie.

"Gran Torino," which cost about $33 million to make after a hefty tax rebate, has grossed about $40 million so far, and Fellman predicts it will collect close to $50 million by week's end and will become Eastwood's highest-grossing film after "In the Line of Fire," "The Unforgiven" and "Million Dollar Baby."

Audiences looking for lighter fare also turned out this weekend to see 20th Century Fox's new chick flick, "Bride Wars," which landed at the altar in second place with an estimated $21.5 million.

"Bride" was largely panned by critics. But the PG film, starring Kate Hudson and Anne Hathaway as best friends who accidentally plan their weddings on the same day, did better than most expected. "Unlike the critics who roundly panned it, women of all ages clearly loved this movie," said Chris Aronson, Fox's senior vice president of distribution.

Proving that satisfying horror films can also scare up good business, director David S. Goyer's PG-13 newcomer, "The Unborn," a low-budget thriller from Universal Pictures' recently sold genre label Rogue Pictures, came in third with $21.1 million. This came as good news to Ryan Kavanaugh, whose Relativity Media just bought Rogue for a reported $150 million. "We are absolutely thrilled with our first Rogue release," Kavanaugh said in a statement. Universal marketed and distributed the film.

In fourth was a strong performer for Fox, "Marley & Me," a family comedy starring Owen Wilson and Jennifer Aniston in a story about a naughty but endearing Labrador who teaches his owners some important life lessons. It took in $11.4 million in its third weekend. The film, based on John Grogan's bestseller, has amassed $123.7 million to date and helped reverse Fox's box-office downturn of last year.

Paramount Pictures' holdover drama, "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," starring Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett, was fifth with an estimated $9.5 million. The film, about a man who ages backward, has grossed about $94.3 million since its nationwide bow on Christmas Day.

The only other newcomer this weekend in the top 10, "Not Easily Broken," a faith-based drama from Sony's TriStar Pictures, grossed an estimated $5.6 million.

Overall, Hollywood saw a strong moviegoing weekend with the top three films surpassing expectations despite severe storms blowing through the Midwest and Northeast -- business in New York plunged 31% from last weekend -- NFL playoff games and the deepening recession.

The weekend's total ticket sales amounted to $148 million, up an estimated 14.2% from the same period last year, and attendance was up about 13.4%, according to Media by Numbers. Year-to-date revenue hit $395.2 million, up nearly 25% from last year, with attendance up 24%.

"This is the momentum from 2008 carrying over very strongly in 2009," said Media by Numbers President Paul Dergarabedian. "It's the third consecutive up weekend. This proves once again that the box office is recession-proof and that people are clearly digging deep into their wallets to go to the movies."

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