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‘Gridiron’ Has Sony Leading the Field

Times Staff Writer

Setting a new industry benchmark, Sony Pictures Entertainment this weekend scored a record 10th opening hit in one year with the football drama “Gridiron Gang.”

Sony’s $15-million take for “Gridiron” was the high point of an otherwise lackluster moviegoing weekend, with receipts totaling $75 million -- down 11.8% from the same period last year. The previous weekend marked the first time in three years that the top-grossing film brought in less than $10 million in the U.S. and Canada.

“The Black Dahlia,” Brian De Palma’s stylized telling of the grisly unsolved murder of an aspiring actress, took the No. 2 position with $10.4 million in ticket sales. Analysts said the second-place showing was a disappointment for Universal Studios, which had pushed the film with a marketing blitz that included reprints of Los Angeles Times articles about the original case and a virtual tour of “Black Dahlia” sites on AOL.

“Gridiron Gang,” starring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, marked back-to-back wins for Sony, which had the No. 1 spot last weekend with supernatural thriller “The Covenant.” (That film fell to fifth place this weekend with $4.7 million.)

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A year ago, Sony was plagued by costly flops such as “Bewitched” and “Stealth.” This weekend, Sony executives toasted their turnaround in New Orleans, where they held the premiere Saturday for the celluloid version of Robert Penn Warren’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel on political corruption, “All the King’s Men.”

The studio hopes to continue its hot streak with that highly anticipated film starring Sean Penn, which opens next week. The following week, the studio will release its first computer-animated film, “Open Season,” in which wily animals outfox the hunters.

“People are in the mood for stories that make you feel good,” said Rory Bruer, Sony’s president of domestic distribution, whose blockbuster 2006 lineup has included “The Da Vinci Code” and “Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby,” a Will Ferrell comedy. “People can relate to having the odds against you and then fighting your way through it.”

“Gridiron Gang,” released by Sony Corp.'s Columbia Pictures unit, also demonstrated the box-office draw of “The Rock,” the pumped-up star of “Doom” and “The Scorpion King.” Johnson now has five opening-day hits under his belt.

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In his latest movie, based on a true story, Johnson plays a tough probation officer and coach who turns a group of rebellious young felons at a California juvenile detention camp into a winning football team.

With its 10th opening weekend win, Sony broke its own record of nine No. 1 hits set in 2003, according to Nielsen EDI, an industry research firm. That year’s winning lineup included “Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle” and “Something’s Gotta Give.”

Paul Dergarabedian, president of Exhibitor Relations Co., a box-office tracking firm headquartered in Encino, thinks Sony will have a tough time maintaining its winning streak. He is betting the next box-office hit will be the Paramount comedy “Jackass: Number Two,” which opens Friday.

“I think that could be the film that really helps us turn things around,” he said, referring to the year’s box-office results. “It’s an unlikely source of help.”

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“Black Dahlia,” starring Josh Hartnett and Scarlett Johansson, explores the unsolved 1947 slaying of Elizabeth Short.

Historically, Hollywood’s dark side hasn’t translated into box-office winnings, and the film noir field was already crowded with last week’s release of “Hollywoodland,” said Brandon Gray, president and publisher of Box Office Mojo, an online movie publication and box-office reporting service.

“Hollywoodland,” a Focus Films feature that chronicles the death of 1950s “Adventures of Superman” TV star George Reeves, fell into ninth place in its second week in theaters. That film, featuring Ben Affleck as the troubled actor who may or may not have committed suicide, has made $10.5 million.

“ ‘Black Dahlia’ seemed to suffer the same fate as ‘Hollywoodland,’ ” Gray said. “It’s very much about Hollywood. That tends to be not that appealing to those outside of Hollywood.”

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Rounding up a strong summer of family movies, “Everyone’s Hero,” an animated baseball tale featuring Babe Ruth and a talking bat, scored third at the box office with nearly $6.2 million in sales in its opening weekend. The 20th Century Fox movie, which was championed by Christopher Reeve and his wife, Dana (both now deceased), features an all-star cast of voices including Robin Williams, William Macy and Whoopi Goldberg.

Next in line was “The Last Kiss,” a romantic, coming-of-age comedy starring Zach Braff of TV’s “Scrubs” fame. That movie, which sought to replicate the success of the quirky “Garden State,” brought in $4.7 million in its opening weekend.

Even with the competition from the “Gridiron Gang,” “Invincible,” another football movie, held sixth place, finishing its fourth week with a $50.9-million total. The Walt Disney Studios production stars Mark Wahlberg.

Among the independent films, “The Illusionist” and “Little Miss Sunshine” continued to draw crowds, grabbing the seventh and eighth spots, respectively, at the box office.

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With summer drawing to a close, total box-office receipts stand at $6.8 billion for the year, up 6.2% over last year.

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evelyn.iritani@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Box office

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

*--* Movie 3-day gross Total Gridiron Gang $15.0 $15.0

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The Black Dahlia 10.4 10.4

Everyone’s Hero 6.2 6.2

The Last Kiss 4.7 4.7

The Covenant 4.7 15.7

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Invincible 3.9 50.9

The Illusionist 3.8 23.3

Little Miss Sunshine 3.4 46.4

Hollywoodland 2.7 10.5

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Crank 2.7 24.4

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Industry totals

*--* 3-day gross Change (in millions) from 2005 $75.0 -11.8%

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*--* Year-to-date gross Change (in billions) from 2005 $6.8 +6.2%

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Source: Exhibitor Relations Co.

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