Cool characters on hot streaks at box office

Times Staff Writer

The penguins and James Bond are rare birds indeed.

In an unusual show of strength, the animated penguin musical "Happy Feet" and the Bond thriller "Casino Royale" dominated the movie box office for the third straight weekend.

Warner Bros.' "Happy Feet" hung on to the top spot with an estimated gross of $17 million in the U.S. and Canada, ahead of Sony Pictures' "Casino Royale," which brought in $15.1 million, studio estimates show.

The crime thriller "Deja Vu," starring Denzel Washington, held up well to place third again in its second weekend. The Walt Disney Co. release racked up an estimated $11 million.

In fourth place was the highest-profile new film, the biblical saga "The Nativity Story." It fell short of expectations with an estimated $8 million.

The sustained battle at the top of the box-office charts is uncommon in today's crowded multiplex marketplace. The last time two films held the top spots for three straight weekends was during the 2005 holiday season, when "King Kong" was No. 1 twice before "The Chronicles of Narnia" turned the tables.

"Happy Feet" and "Casino Royale," which have run one-two since their Nov. 17 debuts, are heading toward domestic grosses above $150 million.

But the pictures are taking different routes. "Casino Royale" has set the pace on weekdays, a pattern that continued Friday, when it spurted ahead of "Happy Feet." But the penguins have dominated on Saturdays and Sundays, with parents and kids flocking to matinees.

"These movies are on different trajectories but they are both equally appealing and benefiting from positive word of mouth," said analyst Paul Dergarabedian, now head of Media by Numbers in Encino.

"Happy Feet," which has grossed $121 million in the U.S. and Canada, is only the second film of the year to top the weekend box office for three straight weeks. "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest" did the trick in the summer.

"Casino Royale," whose box-office total stands at about $116 million, is likely to become the top-grossing Bond film ever and could be the first of the franchise to exceed $500 million worldwide. Over the weekend, it topped $300 million globally.

"Happy Feet" has grossed $135 million worldwide, but it is being rolled out more slowly and has yet to open in most major territories.

Three films that opened in wide release over the weekend missed analysts' targets.

New Line Cinema's "The Nativity Story," aimed squarely at the heartland, suffered because of severe weather in the Midwest and Texas, said David Tuckerman, the studio's distribution president.

Marketed heavily to church groups, the film attracted an audience that skewed Christian, female and over 30. Some analysts, remembering the blockbuster success of Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" in 2004, had expected the studio's grass-roots marketing campaign to attract a bigger turnout.

Despite the sluggish debut for "Nativity," solid advance ticket sales through Christmas and enthusiastic responses in theater exit surveys over the weekend bode well, Tuckerman said, for the movie's prospects during the rest of the holiday season.

"We made this picture for this audience, and this audience really loves it," Tuckerman said of the film, which cost more than $65 million to make and market.

The two other new movies, the horror flick "Turistas" and the comedy "Van Wilder 2: The Rise of Taj," finished eighth and 10th, respectively. "Turistas," the first release from the new, youth-oriented Fox Atomic label, scared up $3.5 million. Bruce Snyder, president of distribution for 20th Century Fox, said the studio paid about $4 million to acquire the film and would "end up OK financially" in the deal.

Among limited releases, Pedro Almodovar's "Volver" averaged a solid $13,479 per theater at 30 locations in its fifth weekend. Penelope Cruz stars in the Spanish-language comedy-drama from Sony Pictures Classics.

Industrywide, ticket sales were estimated at $94 million, about 8% higher than during the same weekend in 2005. So far this year, box-office revenue is up 5.6%.

The dancing penguins are unlikely to remain emperors of the box office a fourth time, because several potentially strong releases are coming Friday.

Disney has high hopes for Gibson's violent, R-rated Mayan epic "Apocalypto," which opens against Sony's "The Holiday," the latest romantic-comedy confection from Nancy Meyers.

Two Warner Bros. releases -- the thriller "Blood Diamond" and the teen comedy "Unaccompanied Minors" -- will also debut.



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Box office

Preliminary results (in millions) in the U.S. and Canada, based on studio projections:

*--* Movie 3-day gross Total Happy Feet $17.0 $121.0

Casino Royale 15.1 115.9

Deja Vu 11.0 44.1

The Nativity Story 8.0 8.0

Deck the Halls 6.7 25.0

The Santa Clause 3 5.0 73.2

Borat 4.8 116.3

Turistas 3.5 3.5

Stranger Than Fiction 3.4 37.0

Van Wilder 2: The Rise of Taj 2.3 2.3


Industry totals

*--* 3-day gross Change (in millions) from 2005 $94.0 +8.5%

Year-to-date gross Change (in billions) from 2005 $8.57 +5.6%


*--* Source: Media by Numbers Los Angeles Times


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