ON STAGE: Justin Bieber performs in "Never Say Never," a part… (/Paramount Pictures / Associated…)
The Beliebers were right after all.
While some had questioned the box office clout of diminutive pop star Justin Bieber, his rabid teenybopper fan base came out in full force this past weekend and spent $30.3 million on movie tickets for the 16-year-old's 3-D biopic, "Never Say Never," according to an estimate from distributor Paramount Pictures.
As is shown in the film, Bieber can sell out Madison Square Garden, but it was unclear if he had enough fans to fill more than 3,000 movie theaters nationwide. To urge Bieber devotees to run out to multiplexes, Paramount employed a multi-pronged strategy, including relentless publicity, ads aimed at young fans' parents and outreach to Christian audiences.
The strong debut nearly put the film in the top box office spot for the weekend, but it was edged by the new Adam Sandler romantic comedy, "Just Go With It." That movie opened to $31 million, a good start but well behind its star's last few PG-13 comedies. Estimates for the two pictures were so close on Sunday morning that when final ticket sales are tallied Monday, they could switch places.
The 3-D animated family film "Gnomeo & Juliet" was third at the box office with a surprisingly healthy $25.5 million. But the Channing Tatum ancient Roman action film "The Eagle" came in far behind the other new movies, with $8.6 million.
To stoke interest in Friday's official opening of "Never Say Never," Paramount on Wednesday screened the movie for fans who had purchased special $30 packs, which included 3-D glasses in Bieber's signature purple. That added an additional $700,000 to the film's box office total.
Rob Moore, vice chairman of Paramount, attributed the film's success partly to the word-of-mouth inspired by the early screenings, as well as to Bieber's mother, a religious woman who tapped into the Christian community.
"She was getting on the phone, talking to various Christian radio networks, and we screened the film for youth pastors," said Moore.
But it was Bieber, of course, who shouldered the majority of the promotional duties. During the last few weeks, he has been a ubiquitous presence, appearing as a surprise guest on "Saturday Night Live" and spoofing his own image in a Super Bowl commercial with Ozzy Osbourne.
"Never Say Never" is the first national release from Paramount Insurge, a label created in the wake of the low-budget horror phenomenon "Paranormal Activity" to produce quick, inexpensive movies. The Bieber film cost only $13 million, making it an immediate hit for the fledgling division.
"Never Say Never" could fade fast at the box office because many fans went to see the movie on opening weekend. Word-of-mouth should be very good, though, as the largely female audience, 60% of whom were under 18, gave it an average grade of A, according to market-research firm CinemaScore.
Moviegoers were almost as satisfied with "Just Go With It," giving it a CinemaScore of A- despite overwhelmingly negative reviews.
The audience was 58% female, even higher than the 53% on the opening weekend of Sandler's last film, "Grown Ups." That's partly because of the appeal of his costar Jennifer Aniston, but it also reflects how the actor has transitioned from his days as a male-skewing lowbrow comedian.
Sony spent $80 million to produce "Just Go With It," which means the movie will need to perform well in the weeks ahead and overseas to be profitable for the studio. And though Sony said it was pleased with the debut, the new movie came in behind not only the $40.5-million opening of Sandler's "Grown Ups" last summer but also 2008's "You Don't Mess With the Zohan" ($38.5 million) and 2007's "I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry" ($34.2 million).
"Gnomeo & Juliet" benefited from being the first new family film in theaters since the holidays. More than half its audience was children younger than 12 and their parents. With no similar movies launching until "Rango" on March 4, it should rack up a strong box-office total.
Despite the low opening number for "The Eagle," Focus Features domestic distribution President Jack Foley said the film would work for his studio given the financial expectations of the $23-million production. Word-of-mouth may not be good, though, as its CinemaScore was C+.
The buzz surrounding this weekend's films will be important heading into the Presidents' Day holiday; many people have a day off of school and work next Monday and have time to head to the theaters.
In limited release, the Ed Helms comedy "Cedar Rapids" performed well, taking in $310,789 at 15 theaters.