Christmas came early at the box office this year, but not for the studio that expected it.
Walt Disney Studios' "A Christmas Carol," produced at a cost of nearly $200 million, opened to a weak $31 million in the U.S. and Canada, according to studio estimates.
But the somber, well-reviewed festival favorite "Precious," which Lionsgate acquired at the Sundance Film Festival for $5.5 million, sold $1.8 million worth of tickets at just 18 theaters, setting a limited-release record.
Disney had always been counting on a long box-office run for "Carol," which should benefit from increasing interest as the holidays get closer and the fact that more than half its theaters are playing the picture on 3-D screens, which carry a ticket price surcharge.
"We know Christmas-themed movies opening in early November tend to have a much greater multiple than others," said Disney domestic distribution President Chuck Viane, referring to the "multiple" of a movie's final gross compared with its opening. "All we had to do is get ourselves established."
But with a domestic opening of just $31 million, even a very strong hold that could bring the movie to around $150 million will leave Disney in a difficult financial position, especially considering its substantial investment in advertising. Studios typically receive about half of a movie's theatrical receipts.
"A Christmas Carol" director Robert Zemeckis' last holiday-themed motion capture animated film, "The Polar Express," had an exceptional run, cruising from a $30.6-million five-day opening to a $162.8 million final gross. But audiences embraced that movie like few others, giving it an average grade of A-plus, according to market research firm CinemaScore. The average grade for "Christmas Carol" was a less impressive, albeit still good, B-plus.
Overseas, the movie opened in 18 territories to $12 million, a decent start that put it 50% ahead of "The Polar Express" in the same markets. However, it's too early to tell how the movie, which will open in other countries throughout November, will ultimately perform around the world.
It's unclear what led to the poor domestic start for "A Christmas Carol," which stars Jim Carrey in a number of roles, though audience frustration at a Christmas movie opening so early and the declining appeal of A-list actors this year are possibilities. Regardless, its soft performance led total box-office receipts to fall 12% from the same weekend last year, when "Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa" launched with $63.1 million, according to Hollywood.com.
As Disney hopes to mitigate a bad start in the coming weeks, Lionsgate is looking to build on a fantastic one. "Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire" set a record for the highest per-theater average, $100,000, for a movie playing at more than six locations.
The independent studio's hybrid strategy -- playing "Precious" in both highbrow theaters, where affluent moviegoers were likely drawn by critics' raves, and in African American communities where the mostly black cast and endorsements by Tyler Perry and Oprah Winfrey helped -- worked extremely well.
In the Los Angeles area, for instance, "Precious" played at the Landmark in West L.A. and ArcLight Hollywood, more upscale locations, as well as the Bridge: Cinema de Lux and Magic Johnson Crenshaw 15, which draw large African American crowds. It also opened this weekend in Atlanta, Chicago and New York.
A small majority of moviegoers were black, and a lopsided 68% were female.
Although some review-driven movies with serious subject matter expand slowly, Lionsgate is planning to build quickly on positive momentum for "Precious." On Friday, it will open in Dallas, Houston, Philadelphia, San Francisco and Washington, as well as expand in the cities where it is currently playing, bringing its total theater count to more than 200. On Nov. 20, it will start playing nationwide.
"It was a fantastic start, but this is our launch, and our goal is to keep it in theaters for a long time to come," said David Spitz, executive vice president of distribution for Lionsgate.
Sony's decision to extend the run of the Michael Jackson movie "This Is It" beyond the announced two weeks looked like a smart one this weekend; the behind-the-scenes concert film dropped only 40% on its second weekend, a very modest decline for a film of its kind. Domestic ticket sales have reached $57.9 million, while the foreign total is $128.6 million.
Among the weekend's other new films, "The Men Who Stare at Goats" and "The Fourth Kind" had decent starts, while "The Box" did not.
"Goats" collected a studio-estimated $13.3 million. Distributor Overture Films paid close to $5 million for domestic rights to the quirky comedy starring George Clooney, which cost $20 million to produce.
Low-budget alien abduction flick "The Fourth Kind," which Universal distributed for financier Gold Circle Films, opened to $12.5 million.