Weekend Box Office (December 26 - 28, 2003)

*** Holiday Store***

by Gitesh Pandya

THIS WEEKEND Holiday moviegoers powered the North American box office to one of the biggest weekends in history as four new releases entered the top ten while returning champ The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King remained the number one draw at the multiplexes during the exceptionally busy post-Christmas frame.

Still ruling the box office with the greatest of ease was New Line's megahit The Return of the King which grossed $50.6M over the Friday-to-Sunday period, according to final studio figures. Off 30% from last weekend, the Peter Jackson epic has amassed a staggering $222.3M in only 12 days and crossed the double-century mark on Saturday in its 11th day of release. Only last year's Spider-Man has broken the $200M barrier faster accomplishing the feat in nine days in May 2002.

Pulling in ticket buyers in 3,703 theaters, King averaged a potent $13,664 per site, but suffered a stronger decline than last year's The Two Towers. The middle saga in the Middle-earth trilogy slipped 21% in its sophomore frame to $48.9M with a $13,494 average and a 12-day cume of $200.1M. After the first five days of release, King was running 22% ahead of Towers, but now after a dozen days, the lead has been cut in half to 11%.

Overseas, The Return of the King has watched its total gross skyrocket to an estimated $268.4M from 38 territories putting the worldwide haul after 12 days at an eye-popping $492M. In less than two weeks, the concluding installment of the J.R.R. Tolkien series has already become the fourth biggest global grosser of 2003 after The Matrix Reloaded, Finding Nemo, and Pirates of the Caribbean.

In the battle for this weekend's silver medal, Fox's family comedy Cheaper by the Dozen was the clear victor debuting in second place with $27.6M and a hefty $35.4M since its Thursday opening. The PG-rated film packed loads of starpower with Steve Martin, Bonnie Hunt, Ashton Kutcher, Piper Perabo, Hillary Duff, and Tom Welling. Playing ultrawide in 3,298 theaters, Cheaper averaged a hearty $8,356 per venue and generated the biggest opening ever for a family film in the holiday month of December. With a budget of under $40M, the Shawn Levy-directed film will turn out to be a very profitable title for Fox. It also caps off a record year for Steve Martin who enjoyed the two biggest openings of his twenty-five-year film career in 2003 with Cheaper by the Dozen and March's Bringing Down the House which bowed to $31.1M.

Miramax's high-profile Oscar contender Cold Mountain premiered in third place with $14.6M and $19.1M over four days. Directed by Anthony Minghella (The English Patient, The Talented Mr. Ripley), the R-rated film stars Jude Law, Nicole Kidman, and Renee Zellweger and averaged a potent $6,738 from 2,163 theaters over three days. The $80M Civil War period drama won rave reviews from critics and earned eight Golden Globe nominations - more than any other film.

Enjoying the best holiday boost in the top ten was the Jack Nicholson-Diane Keaton comedy Something's Gotta Give which spiked 21% to $13.8M. After 17 days, the Sony release has collected $55.9M and is still aiming for the century mark.

Opening in fifth place was the Ben Affleck actioner Paycheck with $13.5M and $18.6M since its Christmas Day bow. The Paramount release about a computer engineer fighting the FBI and his corporate bosses over stolen technology averaged $4,874 per location over three days. Directed by John Woo, the PG-13 film also stars Uma Thurman and Aaron Eckhart and drew evenly among males and females and those under and over 25, according to studio research. Reviews were generally bad for the $60M Paycheck which was co-produced with DreamWorks.

Dropping from second to sixth place was the Julia Roberts film Mona Lisa Smile with $11.4M in its second weekend. Off just 2% from last weekend's debut, the Sony title has grossed $31.2M to date.

Universal's $100M fairy tale adventure Peter Pan bowed in seventh place with $11.1M and $14.6M since its Thursday launch. Playing in 2,813 theaters, the PG-rated kidpic averaged a mediocre $3,960 over three days. Parents and children made up the bulk of the audience for Peter Pan which had to struggle to find family moviegoers against the Steve Martin hit which drew more than twice as big of a crowd this weekend. Co-produced with Sony and Revolution, Peter Pan already opened at number one in director P.J. Hogan's home country of Australia last weekend.

Moviegoers made a charge for Tom Cruise's The Last Samurai which rose 7% to $8.3M in its fourth weekend giving the Warner Bros. release $74.3M thus far. Christmas comedies Bad Santa and Elf rounded out the top ten with grosses of $4.5M and $3.9M respectively. Miramax's Billy Bob Thornton hit eased 11% and pushed its total to $50.9M while New Line's Will Ferrell smash dropped 29% and pushed its cume to $164.6M.

Four films fell out of the top ten over the holiday weekend. Matt Damon and Greg Kinnear saw their comedy Stuck on You drop 31% to $3.6M in its third weekend. With $24.4M in the bank, the Fox release should find its way to $35-38M. Teen comedy Love Don't Cost A Thing fell 21% to $3M. The Warner Bros. title has grossed $16.4M to date and should finish with about $25M.

Disney's The Haunted Mansion grossed $2.9M, off 27%, for a cume of $64.7M. Look for a $73-77M final. Universal's urban dance pic Honey declined 48% to $1.4M and lifted its total to $26.6M. A final gross of about $30M could occur.

Critically acclaimed films expanding over the holiday session found mixed results with the paying public. Sony's Big Fish remained a promising title expanding from six to 124 theaters collecting $2.1M. Nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Picture (Comedy or Musical), the Tim Burton fantasy averaged a sparkling $16,562 and expands wider on January 9. Cume stands at $3.5M.

On the other hand, DreamWorks may have gone too wide too fast with House of Sand and Fog which grossed $1.7M from 438 locations for a mild $3,928 average. The Jennifer Connelly-Ben Kingsley drama expanded from its two platform locations and has grossed $1.8M to date.

Fox Searchlight more than doubled the run of the Irish immigrant drama In America and took in $1.1M from 325 theaters for a $3,295 average. Total to date is $3M. 21 Grams expanded from 71 to 291 sites and grossed $1.2M for a decent $4,206 average. The Focus title has taken in $4.8M so far.

The top ten films grossed $159.3M which was up 7% from last year when The Two Towers remained at number one with $48.9M; and up 16% from 2001 when The Fellowship of the Ring stayed on top with $38.7M.

Compared to projections, Cheaper by the Dozen climbed past my $24M four-day forecast while Cold Mountain opened close to my $18M prediction. Paycheck bowed better than my $15M projection while Peter Pan came in very close to my $14M forecast.

Take this week's NEW Reader Survey on next summer's big sequels. For reviews of Cheaper by the Dozen and Peter Pan, visit The Chief Report.

Be sure to check back on Thursday for a complete summary, including projections, for next weekend's post-New Years frame.

Marketplace: Shop for videos, DVDs, music, books, and posters at discounted prices using search engines

# Title Dec. 26 - 28 Dec. 19 - 21 % Chg. Theaters Weeks AVG Cumulative Distributor
1 LOTR: The Return of the King $ 50,598,104 $ 72,629,713 -30.3 3,703 2 $ 13,664 $ 222,268,708 New Line
2 Cheaper by the Dozen 27,557,647 3,298 1 8,356 35,397,241 Fox
3 Cold Mountain 14,574,213 2,163 1 6,738 19,079,727 Miramax
4 Something's Gotta Give 13,816,638 11,416,793 21.0 2,709 3 5,100 55,902,582 Sony
5 Paycheck 13,462,374 2,762 1 4,874 18,615,272 Paramount
6 Mona Lisa Smile 11,351,439 11,528,498 -1.5 2,677 2 4,240 31,226,270 Sony
7 Peter Pan 11,139,495 2,813 1 3,960 14,627,615 Universal
8 The Last Samurai 8,326,947 7,769,301 7.2 2,557 4 3,257 74,324,104 Warner Bros.
9 Bad Santa 4,526,000 5,102,135 -11.3 1,710 5 2,647 50,947,195 Miramax
10 Elf 3,906,028 5,502,635 -29.0 2,015 8 1,938 164,648,692 New Line
11 Stuck on You 3,626,868 5,284,023 -31.4 2,400 3 1,511 24,412,346 Fox
12 Love Don't Cost A Thing 2,953,073 3,750,265 -21.3 1,133 3 2,606 16,431,144 Warner Bros.
13 The Haunted Mansion 2,860,015 3,928,641 -27.2 1,622 5 1,763 64,736,126 Buena Vista
14 Big Fish 2,053,733 164,641 124 3 16,562 3,505,172 Sony
15 House of Sand and Fog 1,720,438 45,572 438 2 3,928 1,811,537 DreamWorks
16 Honey 1,417,310 2,708,610 -47.7 760 4 1,865 26,638,660 Universal
17 The Cat in the Hat 1,260,080 2,311,890 -45.5 1,299 6 970 97,011,510 Universal
18 21 Grams 1,223,891 259,484 371.7 291 6 4,206 4,771,830 Focus
19 Master and Commander 1,160,829 1,500,514 -22.6 751 7 1,546 80,688,206 Fox
20 In America 1,070,721 505,989 111.6 325 5 3,295 2,992,911 Fox Searchlight
Top 5 $ 120,008,976 $ 108,846,940 10.3
Top 10 159,258,885 129,620,614 22.9
Top 20 178,605,843 138,049,395 29.4
Top 20 vs. 2002 178,605,843 169,498,794 5.4

Last Updated : December 29, 2003 at 6:15PM EST

Gitesh Pandya can be seen each Friday on "The Biz" airing at 12:30pm and 9:30pm ET on CNNfn.