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Puppets sleep with the fishes

Times Staff Writer

The heat-seeking missile of controversy following “Team America: World Police” largely fizzled this weekend as the rude action adventure-political satire finally made it into theaters.

The sparks certainly weren’t enough to break the hold of top-ranked “Shark Tale,” now in its third week of release, or “Friday Night Lights,” at No. 2 for its second week. The R-rated marionette movie took in $12.3 million to put it in third place.

With a budget of roughly $30 million, “Team America” wasn’t much of a financial risk, said Rob Friedman, vice chairman and chief operating officer of Paramount Pictures. Filmmakers Trey Parker and Matt Stone, with a built-in following because of their irreverent and inventive Comedy Central series “South Park,” were another factor. “We had great success with Trey and Matt on the ‘South Park’ movie, which took in $52 million,” he said. “In our mind, they’re creative geniuses. The good news is that there’s nothing like this film, but it’s a challenge getting people into a puppet movie. Our target audience is males 17 to 34 -- but since moviegoing is basically a dating activity, there’s always a substantial percentage of women. Until ‘The Incredibles’ enters the market in November, we should have a pretty good run.”

The movie is an equal-opportunity offender, attacking Hollywood partisans and the campaign against terrorism alike. And a puppet sex scene resulted in a down-to-the-wire fight over the rating. Paramount ultimately got past an initial NC-17 rating, which would have barred anyone 17 or under, to go into the marketplace rated R. “The R rating could cut into box office a bit, but that’s less of a factor in urban areas, where the film is likely to play best,” Friedman said.

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“Team America’s” release strategy clearly was devised with the presidential election, now only two weeks away, in mind. . An international police force learns that a power-hungry dictator is brokering weapons of mass destruction to terrorists, so the heroes embark on a harrowing quest designed to save the world. Well-known left-leaning celebrities such as Alec Baldwin as well as those on the right are skewered.

Paramount used sister networks such as Comedy Central, MTV, Black Entertainment Television and Spike to get the word out -- as well as “sneaks” in more than 600 theaters last week. Like “Fahrenheit 9/11’s” Michael Moore, Parker and Stone have been integral to the marketing effort.

Foul language and puppet sex aren’t to everyone’s taste, insiders concede, but they’re central to the product’s appeal.

“No movie is so offensive these days that it will push people away,” said Brandon Gray of boxofficemojo.com, a tracking firm. “A certain part of the culture wants things to be taken beyond the limit. That may just be a few million people, but that’s enough to make some money -- and lay a foundation for the DVD release, where ‘Team America’ is sure to do well.”

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The industry, as well as Paramount, is ready for a hit, said Paul Dergarabedian, president of Exhibitor Relations, another box-office tracking firm. Only two of the last eight weeks have exceeded the box office revenues of comparable periods last year.

Mixed reviews for “Team America” won’t help. Although the movie may be critic-proof with younger filmgoers, he suggests, negative reviews are an impediment to bringing in older audiences whose moviegoing habits are more selective.

“ ‘Team America’ could be one of those love-it-or-hate-it movies,” he said. “Paramount didn’t rein their filmmakers in -- the point was to shock people, get them talking. Though the distinct nature of the movie could work in its favor, it also makes it a tougher sell. Audiences complain that there are too many cookie-cutter movies out there, but when studios try to do something different, it’s generally met with resistance.”

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Box Office

Preliminary results (in millions) based on studio projections.

*--* Movie 3-day gross Total Shark Tale $22 $118.8

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Friday Night Lights $13 $38.7

Team America: World Police $12.3 $12.3

Shall We Dance? $11.6 $11.6

Ladder 49 $8.6 $53.9

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Taxi $7.7 $23.7

The Forgotten $6 $57.2

Raise Your Voice $3 $8.1

The Motorcycle Diaries $1.7 $5.7

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Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow $1.3 $36

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Source: Nielsen EDI Inc.


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