"Night at the Museum" brought a day of smiles to 20th Century Fox as the family comedy that debuted Friday beat all competition to pull in an estimated $30.8 million in ticket sales through Sunday.
But all was not happy in Hollywood. Stiff competition tackled an inspirational football film and downed a fantasy tale about a flying dragon.
The strength of "Night at the Museum" -- a $110-million, special-effects-laden film starring Ben Stiller as a bumbling guard in a natural history museum where the exhibits come to life -- was its ability to play well to both men and women and attract audience members of all ages.
"About 51% of the people who came to see it did not bring children," said Bruce Snyder, Fox's president of distribution Sunday, "so it's not just a family film."
The three-day estimate for the movie was nearly what many analysts had expected it to make in four days, including Christmas.
Overall, the three-day estimates were heartening for Hollywood. Total box-office revenue for the period ran more than 12% over the same time in 2005.
"Last year, the holiday weekend was considered fairly solid with 'King Kong' and 'The Chronicles of Narnia' in theaters," said Paul Dergarabedian, president of box-office tracker Media by Numbers. "But we not only went up for this weekend, we are doing better for the whole year. We've already passed 2005 in terms of revenue and attendance."
The final, four-day figures for the holiday period won't be released until Wednesday.
Last weekend's box-office champ, the Will Smith vehicle "The Pursuit of Happyness" from Sony Pictures, held its own, making an estimated $15 million for second place. That reflected a 43% drop in revenue from last weekend.
"When you are including Christmas Eve, you have to figure a big drop-off," said Rory Bruer, the studio's president of distribution. "A lot of people don't go to the movies that day."
Brandon Gray, president of website Box Office Mojo, which tracks ticket sales, said the tone of "Happyness" made its popularity all the more impressive.
"This is Will Smith in a drama, which is a trickier genre to sell at this time of year than a comedy," Gray said.
Last weekend's runner-up in ticket sales, the dragon tale "Eragon," plunged 69% to $7.2 million in only its second week. The Fox film has failed to find fans much beyond the readers of the popular fantasy book the movie is based on, Gray said.
An aging boxer fared far better. The MGM release "Rocky Balboa," the sixth entry in Sylvester Stallone's boxing franchise, sold an estimated $12.5 million in tickets over the three-day period -- a highly respectable amount considering that the film had a low budget and, among many, low expectations, analysts said.
"I don't want to gloat," said Clark Woods, president of domestic distribution for MGM. "It's a great business when anything can work if you have a great film and a great marketing campaign."
The film, which reportedly cost about $24 million to make, drew almost half its audience from the 18- to 34-year-old group, according to studio exit polls. Most of that age group was not alive when the original "Rocky" opened in 1976.
Dergarabedian said a key plot point in the film regarding a computer-simulated boxing match could have helped the film skew younger.
"You'd think that this movie would be just nostalgia to appeal to older viewers," Dergarabedian said. "But because of the video game-like element, it has something younger people can relate to."
"The Good Shepherd," an all-star historical drama about the founding of the CIA, had a solid if not spectacular debut weekend with an estimated box office of nearly $10 million for the three days.
Not all the new films could be winners. "We Are Marshall," based on a true story about the heroic rebuilding of a football team after most of the players and coaches were killed in an airplane crash, fumbled at the box office. The Warner Bros. release scored only $6.6 million in estimated box-office sales.
"We were hoping for a stronger beginning," said Jeff Goldstein, executive vice president for distribution at Warner Bros.
Goldstein said it was particularly tough to open a film this weekend. "Everyone is out Christmas shopping and there are a lot of films in the marketplace," he said.
Gray said the audience might be tiring of football-themed movies.
"We've had 'Glory Road,' 'Remember the Titans,' 'Invincible' and 'Gridiron Gang,' " he said. "There have been so many of them that 'We Are Marshall' was not able to distinguish itself."
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Preliminary results (in millions) in the U.S. and Canada, based on studio projections
*--* Movie 3-day gross Total Night at the Museum $30.8 $30.8
The Pursuit of Happyness 15.0 53.3
Rocky Balboa 12.5 22.1
The Good Shepherd 10.0 10.0
Charlotte's Web 8.0 $26.8
Eragon 7.2 37.6
We Are Marshall 6.6 7.7
Happy Feet 5.1 159.1
The Holiday 5.0 $35.1
The Nativity Story 4.7 31.3
*--* 3-day gross Change (in millions) from 2005 $125.0 +12.6%
Year-to-date gross Change (in billions) from 2005 $9.1 +4.7%
*--* Source: Media by Numbers Los Angeles Times