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Weekend box office: Bah, humbug; Hooray, "Precious"

Posted by Ty Burr  November 9, 2009 06:17 AM

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(Lenny Kravitz and Gabourey Sidibe in "Precious")

"Disney's A Christmas Carol" made $31 million over the weekend -- sounds like a success, yes? Hardly. When you consider that the Jim Carrey full-motion capture 3D extravaganza opened on 6,500 screens at over 3,600 theaters, that number looks a bit more temperate. "Elf" made the same amount when it opened in fewer theaters in early November 2003, and "How the Grinch Stole Christmas" earned much more ($55 million) on the weekend of Nov. 17, 2000. (Keep in mind, too, that grosses for the new movie are further inflated by higher ticket prices for 3D and IMAX screenings.) On the plus side, "Christmas Carol" outperformed Robert Zemeckis' last holiday-themed full-motion widget, "The Polar Express," which opened to $23 million in November, 2004.

Still, what went "wrong"? It's possible that the 3D hand that gaveth all summer (with films like "Up" and "G-Force" benefiting from exposure in the format) can also taketh away. A huge 74% of the movie's grosses came from the 32% of theaters that were able to show it in 3D, meaning that audiences realized they had to see this with the funny glasses or not at all. Add to that a whoop-de-do marketing campaign (posters featuring a manic Carrey aboard a Victorian rocket) at serious odds with the film's more reverent tone, and possible word of mouth that this wasn't the kiddie thrill ride it was being sold as, and you have a Christmas cracker that didn't pop all that loud. "Polar Express" ultimately built to a very solid $162 final US gross, and it's possible that "Carol" may yet do so.

Other new releases fared passably but not spectacularly. "The Men Who Stare at Goats" made $13.3 million, about as good as could be expected for a George Clooney movie with a weird title. The aliens-are-among-us shenanigans of "The Fourth Kind" sucked in $12 million worth of credulous viewers and "The Box" -- a paranoid thriller from "Donnie Darko" director Richard Kelly that was gingerly mishandled by Warner Brothers (which sold it as a Cameron Diaz "Twilight Zone" episode and only screened it for critics at the last minute) -- made $8 million.

Michael Jackson in "This is It" held on strongly its second week -- dipping only 40 percent from opening weekend -- but "Paranormal Activity" seems done now that Halloween is over and with nearly $100 million in tickets sold overall has nothing to be ashamed of.

The story of the weekend in limited-release land was "Precious" (photo above), the tough inner-city inspirational drama that has been building steam ever since its debut at Sundance last January. Reviews were over the moon (mostly) when the film finally was released in New York, LA, and elsewhere last Friday, and the buzz was such that the talk was of little else at a dinner party I attended Saturday night in suburban Boston -- two weeks before the film opens here. (Usually, movies don't land on that radar until well after they've debuted locally.) "Precious" made $1.8 million at 18 screens, which is a $100,000 per-screen-average, the 12th highest on record. Yes, a big thumbs up from Oprah and Tyler Perry and a glowing feature article in the New York Times magazine certainly helped. Is this the year's Oscar winner? I think its too unpolished and melodramatic at points -- arguably one of the movie's strengths -- to take the big prize, but the real win for "Precious" is that millions of people are going to see it.

More numbers from Box Office Mojo and Leonard Klady at Movie City News.

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5 comments so far...
  1. "...and the buzz was such that the talk was of little else at a dinner party I attended Saturday night in suburban Boston."

    Wow. Sounds like a really fun party.

    TB responds: Don't worry, Incredulous, you'll be old someday too.

    Posted by Incredulous November 9, 09 08:22 AM
  1. Come on! It's going to be 70 degrees today!! Who in New England can muster up Christmas nostalgia while sunning on the deck in mid November??

    That said, I went last night to see the IMAX first exposure to this particular cinema technology. Must say I stayed awake through the entire film. Seeing this in IMAX was a hoot.

    It kind of fizzled at the end, however (the "Ghost of Christmas Future" segment was a too long and disappointing and the ending lacked the "one, two" emotional punch I was expecting), but I'm just nit-picking here.

    Perhaps the numbers will pick up after people pack up their tee-shirts and shorts. The first snow fall might do wonders as well.

    Think this film in IMAX might be a bit scary for the little ones, especially the part where Jacob Marley appears, but I did see a few munchkins in the seats.

    Posted by kuriouskat November 9, 09 08:23 AM
  1. "Precious" is "too unpolished and melodramatic... to take the big prize."

    I disagree completely. I'd prefer an unpolished and honest work like this over any spectacle film.

    To all of the critics who claim "Precious" is "melodramatic," please realize it is honest. There are so many girls like Precious out there, and their stories hadn't been told until "Precious" came along and forced its viewers to be honest with themselves. What Precious goes through is anything but melodramatic. It is real, in your face, and its honesty is what makes the film such a success.

    Posted by Jennifer November 9, 09 09:58 AM
  1. Well, I was psyched when I saw posters of A Christmas Carol, until I saw it was animated, and not Jim Carey 'the actor'. And then I saw the trailers in theaters. Talk about awful. The animation, which looked good in Polar Express, just didn't come off well for ACC. On top of that, I couldn't tell if the movie was supposed to be comedy or drama or what. Given the price of movies, it just didn't look like it would be worth my time...

    Posted by JMc November 9, 09 10:06 AM
  1. Why wasn't this in Boston last weekend? I looked everywhere and apparently it hasn't opened in Boston yet.

    When does it arrive?

    Posted by lou November 9, 09 09:48 PM

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Ty Burr is a film critic with The Boston Globe.

Mark Feeney is an arts writer for The Boston Globe.

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Tom Russo is a regular correspondent for the Movies section and writes a weekly column on DVD releases.

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