Disney ended up picking just the right moment to jump down the 3-D rabbit hole.
As "Avatar" comes to the end of a historic three-month run, Walt Disney Studios' "Alice in Wonderland" took most of the 3-D screens and opened to an eye-popping $210.3 million worldwide.
Much like director James Cameron's mega-hit, Tim Burton's adaptation of the classic tale, starring Johnny Depp, generated about 70% of its opening weekend business from theaters with 3-D screens. It easily beat the premiere of "Avatar" and set a record for the biggest winter opening, even accounting for ticket price inflation, selling a studio-estimated $116.3 million worth of tickets in the U.S. and Canada.
Overseas, it took in $94 million in 40 territories, also setting a record winter opening.
"After 'Avatar,' people were saying that they're ready for the next 3-D world and the first weekend in March was all of a sudden the right place to be to meet that desire," said Disney Studios Chairman Rich Ross.
"Alice" played at about 220 more 3-D theaters than "Avatar," since exhibitors have added more capacity recently. As returns came in, it became clear that audiences generally preferred to see Disney's movie with the advanced technology, despite higher ticket prices.
"In theaters with multiple formats, we saw that the Imax 3-D sold out first, then regular 3-D, and then 2-D," said Disney distribution President Chuck Viane.
Though young women were most interested in "Alice," the picture's strong showing and sellouts at all times of day indicated that it had broad appeal. At midnight shows Thursday night, Viane said, the movie made $4 million, mainly from young adults. It generated $41 million in the U.S. and Canada on Friday largely from families with daughters early in the evening and from couples on dates later in the night. On Saturday, "Alice" grossed $44.3 million domestically, in large part due to families attending matinees.
3-D has accounted for an increasingly large percentage of ticket sales over the last three months for "Avatar" as it has marched past $2.6 billion. That will be very difficult for "Alice," however, because most 3-D screens will switch to DreamWorks Animation's "How to Train Your Dragon" on March 26, a sign of the increasingly crowded marketplace for 3-D movies.
Word of mouth should be strong for "Alice," however, as audiences gave it an average grade of A-minus, according to market research firm CinemaScore, though reviews of the film were decidedly mixed. And with American students starting spring break next week, Disney will benefit from higher-than-average family attendance on weekdays.
The film's European opening was almost derailed when the studio, in an initiative championed by Walt Disney Co. Chief Executive Robert Iger, announced that "Alice" would be released on DVD just 12 weeks after it hit the big screen. Several theater chains, including two of the three biggest in Britain, threatened not to show the movie because of concerns the short window would hurt ticket sales. That led to a tense standoff that was resolved at the last minute.
Ultimately, "Alice" collected $16.8 million in Britain, by far the highest opening for a movie in March in the country. It also performed very well in Italy, Russia, Mexico and Australia.
"I'm just glad we had enough seats for everybody," said Viane.
Disney estimated that the countries where "Alice" opened last week would account for 60% of its international gross. The film has yet to premiere in several key territories including France, China, Japan and Brazil.
As often happens amid executive shake-ups in Hollywood, "Alice in Wonderland" is a gift of sorts left by former Disney Studios chairman Dick Cook, who was ousted in September. Though the team led by his replacement Ross handled the successful marketing push for the picture -- including an aggressive campaign on Facebook and a controversial ad covering the front of Friday's L.A. Times -- it was Cook and former production president Oren Aviv who approved the risky $200-million production.
"The Disney team has developed a lot of terrific movies, including my predecessors who developed and produced this movie," Ross said.