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Company Town: 'True Grit' rides tall in the saddle

The Coen brothers' western exceeds expectations. 'Little Fockers' and 'Tron: Legacy' falter.

January 03, 2011|By Ben Fritz, Los Angeles Times
  • Jeff Bridges and Hailee Steinfeld star in "True Grit," the western directed by Ethan and Joel Coen.
Jeff Bridges and Hailee Steinfeld star in "True Grit," the western… (Lorey Sebastian, Paramount…)

The 2010 holidays brought big-budget action movies, 3-D family adventures and star-driven comedies, but the season's only undisputed hit is an old-fashioned, guns-blazing western.

"True Grit" sold a studio-estimated $24.5-million worth of tickets in the U.S. and Canada on its second weekend, just short of the $26.3 million taken in by the more expensive and hyped "Little Fockers."

The last week was one of the most critical of the year at the box office, even though no new movies opened. Studios were counting on sizable ticket sales for the array of movies that opened in early to mid-December because many people were off of work or school between Christmas and New Year's.

For the costliest and highest-profile pictures, however, the results were decidedly mixed. "Fockers" is at $103.2 million, more than a third less than its predecessor, "Meet the Fockers," on the same date six years ago. Walt Disney Studios' "Tron: Legacy," December's most expensive movie and the product of several years of hype, stands at a so-so $130.9 million. Both pictures have been performing slightly worse overseas.

The holidays have also brought several outright domestic flops, most notably "How Do You Know" and "Gulliver's Travels."

But outside of the specialty film realm, "True Grit" is the only recent release to far exceed the expectations of those who made it.

Financed for $38 million by Paramount Pictures and Skydance Productions, it has already generated $87.1 million domestically. That's the highest total for a movie written and directed by Ethan and Joel Coen, best known for quirky cult favorites like "The Big Lebowski."

Distributor Paramount had thought it would tap into the adult audience that drove the Coens' previous biggest hit, 2007's "No Country for Old Men," as well as fans of the fading western genre.

But strong word-of-mouth and savvy marketing have also made the PG-13 picture a popular choice for teenage boys and young men as well as families with older children.

"The key has been that the tone of the movie is so entertaining and plays so broadly that we are getting multi-generational attendance," said Paramount Vice Chairman Rob Moore.

The western has been nearly dead in Hollywood for 20 years, making the success of "True Grit" a surprise. It will likely end up the second-highest grossing western of all time, not accounting for ticket price inflation, behind only 1990's "Dances With Wolves," which finished its Oscar-winning run at $184.2 million.

Ticket sales across the board were either up or down little from last weekend, thanks to an easy comparison to Christmas Eve, when theaters were empty. But several films enjoyed particularly large gains, indicating word of mouth is strong.

Among the notable: The young kids' live action/animation hybrid "Yogi Bear," which rose 66%; Disney's animated "Tangled," up 56%; and Oscar favorite British drama "The King's Speech," which increased 70% (assisted by it expanding wide after playing in just a few theaters the previous Friday).

"Tron" was the only top 10 movie in theaters at least two weeks to see a decline in ticket sales — a modest 4% but still an indication that it's not expanding from an opening weekend fanboy audience to families, as Walt Disney Studios had hoped. It appears likely to fall short of $200 million both domestically and overseas, a so-so performance for a picture that cost more than $170 million to produce and was promoted across numerous Disney corporate divisions.

"Little Fockers" will likely end up in a similar $300-million-to-$400-million worldwide gross territory. That would make it somewhat more successful than "Tron" for domestic distributor Universal Pictures, foreign distributor Paramount Pictures and their financing partner Relativity Media. Three people close to the picture said it cost $130 million to $140 million to produce, though a Universal spokeswoman said the budget was about $100 million.

20th Century Fox and Walden Media's attempt to revive "The Chronicles of Narnia" series with an adaptation of the third book, "The Voyage of the Dawn Treader," is struggling in the U.S., where it stands at only $87.1 million after four weeks. However, overseas it has grossed a much more impressive $210 million.

In limited release, the Ryan Gosling- Michelle Williams romantic drama "Blue Valentine" had a strong opening. It debuted Wednesday at four theaters in Los Angeles and New York and has collected $277,945.

The Mike Leigh-directed drama "Another Year" launched in six theaters on Wednesday to a decent $173,175.

Total receipts were down a hefty 28% from New Year's 2010 weekend, primarily from the difficult comparison to last year's blockbuster "Avatar."

ben.fritz@latimes.com

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