Fact beat fantasy at the box office over the weekend as "The Pursuit of Happyness," a heartfelt story of a man's rise from poverty in the 1980s, beat out tales of an industrious spider and a boy and his dragon.
"When you have Will Smith as the star of a movie, you can feel pretty comfortable," said Rory Bruer, president of distribution for Sony. "He's a huge star and audiences love him."
The film was followed by "Eragon," a special-effects-laden fantasy from 20th Century Fox, while "Charlotte's Web" from Paramount Pictures was third.
In "Happyness," Smith portrays the real-life Chris Gardner, a struggling salesman who ends up homeless in San Francisco with his young son before gaining success as a stockbroker. The title refers to a misspelled mural at a day-care center attended by Gardner's son.
The film, which has earned Smith a Golden Globe nomination, resonated with moviegoers looking for a feel-good holiday movie, said Bruer, who was expecting a weekend gross of closer to $20 million.
"Seeing someone make it against all odds is a theme that all of us can relate to," he said. "At some point in our lives, we've either been there or know someone who has been there."
Based on its opening weekend, "Happyness," which cost about $50 million to make, should easily top $100 million in total ticket sales, Bruer said.
"Eragon" took in $23.5 million, almost double the $12 million garnered by "Charlotte's Web," the weekend's other high-profile release. The strong showing topped Fox's forecast. Bruce Snyder, the studio's head of distribution, said expectations were for an opening below $20 million.
The movie has been a punching bag for critics -- only 14% of the reviews tabulated by the website Rotten Tomatoes have been positive -- but that doesn't matter to its target audience of teenage males.
"That audience really doesn't pay attention to reviews," said Paul Dergarabedian, president of box-office tracker Media by Numbers. "They just know what they want to see and they go to see it."
This appeared to be the first time in a decade that two movies opened to more than $20 million in sales the weekend before Christmas. The weekend before the Christmas holiday can be a tough one for Hollywood as it competes with shopping, gatherings of all kinds and the end of school for a while.
Paramount said that quirk of the calendar was to blame for the comparatively weak showing of "Charlotte's Web," the live-action retelling of E.B. White's fable about a spider who saves a pig from the frying pan.
Featuring the voices of well-known stars such as Julia Roberts, Oprah Winfrey and Robert Redford, the movie was tabbed by many analysts as a surefire holiday hit. The studio, which says the opening numbers matched its expectations, insists the movie will find its audience.
"The ticket buyer for 'Charlotte's Web' is mom," said Rob Moore, Paramount's chief of worldwide marketing and distribution. "When is mom least available? The weekend before Christmas."
Noting that the movie has received generally positive reviews, Moore said he expected "Charlotte's Web" -- which cost about $80 million to make -- to pick up steam over Christmas and eventually bring in $90 million to more than $100 million.
Dergarabedian also thinks the G-rated movie has legs.
"The good news for 'Charlotte's Web' is that it's a really good movie," he said. "It's a perfect family film and I think it will play well as we move toward Christmas Day."
"Charlotte's Web" also lost business to Warner Bros.' family-friendly "Happy Feet," Dergarabedian said. The animated penguin musical was at No. 4 in its fifth week in release and now boasts total ticket sales in the U.S. and Canada of almost $150 million.
Another movie in its fifth week, Sony's "Casino Royale," took in $5.7 million to boost its domestic gross to $137.6 million. Bruer now expects the latest James Bond vehicle to ultimately take in more than $500 million worldwide.
The continued strength of "Casino Royale," as well as the big opening for "Happyness" and a strong showing by the romantic comedy "The Holiday" in its second week, pushed Sony's domestic box-office receipts for the year to $1.57 billion, which the studio said was a record.
Among other holdover films, Mel Gibson's violent historical thriller "Apocalypto," which is distributed by Walt Disney Co. and opened at No. 1 last week, finished sixth with $7.7 million in ticket sales. That was down 49%, not surprising given the opening weekend buzz that surrounded the movie, Dergarabedian said.
"People didn't want to wait to go see it," he said. "They wanted to see what the fuss was all about right away."
Warner's "Blood Diamond" and New Line Cinema's "The Nativity Story" both had relatively small drop-offs in business, raising hopes that they will continue to draw moviegoers through the holidays.
Overall, the weekend's movie attendance should total about $122 million, according to Media by Numbers estimates, down 5.4% from a year earlier.
It was the second straight slide for weekend ticket sales, although studios noted that they were up against tough year-ago comparisons. At this time a year ago, "King Kong," "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" and "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire" were in wide release.
Ticket sales are still up almost 5% over last year, and analysts at Nielsen EDI say Hollywood is on track to top last year's lackluster box-office tally.
More major films are ahead this holiday season. MGM's "Rocky Balboa" opens Wednesday, Fox's "Night at the Museum" opens Friday and both appear poised for solid debuts.
Paramount's highly anticipated "Dreamgirls" -- which debuted at three theaters in L.A., New York and San Francisco over the weekend -- opens wide Christmas Day.
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Preliminary results (in millions) in the U.S. and Canada, based on studio projections
*--* Movie 3-daygross Total Pursuit of Happyness $27.0 $27.0
Eragon 23.5 23.5
Charlotte's Web 12.0 12.0
Happy Feet 8.5 149.4
The Holiday 8.2 25.3
Apocalypto 7.7 27.9
Blood Diamond 6.3 18.4
Casino Royale 5.7 137.6
The Nativity Story 4.7 23.1
Unaccompanied Minors 3.7 10.2
*--* 3-day gross Change (in millions) from 2005 $122.0 -5.4%
Year-to-date gross Change (in billions) from 2005 $8.86 +4.8%
Source: Exhibitor Relations Co.