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‘Wolverine’ No. 1: Hugh made me love you

He’s no Iron Man or team of mutants, but Wolverine kicked off summer with an impressive $87 million at the box office this weekend.

Add in $73 million from 101 foreign markets where it opened simultaneously and “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” generated $160 million in worldwide ticket sales, according to studio estimates.

Although that’s a solid start for Fox’s $140-million-plus production, “Wolverine’s” opening weekend gross doesn’t qualify it for the big leagues of summer event or superhero flicks. Last year on the first weekend in May, Marvel’s self-financed “Iron Man” opened to about $200 million worldwide. (“Wolverine” didn’t play in Mexico because of the swine flu outbreak, depriving the film of about $5 million.)

“Wolverine’s” opening is almost exactly on par with the second “X-Men” movie, “X2,” which launched on the same weekend in 2003. Given six years of ticket-price inflation, which has totaled more than 20% in the U.S., equivalent grosses actually indicate a significant drop in audience interest.

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Also factor in “Wolverine’s” higher production budget and the industrywide decline in DVD sales, and Fox, along with its financing partner Dune Entertainment, may find its latest film isn’t as profitable as previous ones.

This year’s summer-opening event movie started off just as strong as the last, grossing $35 million on Friday, signaling that online piracy and fear of swine flu didn’t affect attendance, as some had speculated.

But “Wolverine’s” $29.75 million in ticket sales Saturday was 16% less than that of “Iron Man,” indicating weaker word of mouth. (The new film was hurt by Saturday night’s Boston-Chicago NBA playoff game; Fox said ticket sales were significantly lower in those two cities.)

Getting to the $459 million in worldwide ticket sales reached by 2006’s “X-Men: The Last Stand” or the $408 million of “X2" may depend on a surprising demographic: women.

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Though men traditionally dominate the audience for comic book movies, 47% of “Wolverine” ticket buyers were female, which the studio attributed to the appeal of star Hugh Jackman. Since Paramount’s “Star Trek,” which opens Friday, is tracking primarily with men, continued interest among women will be key to “Wolverine” holding up at the box office.

“Females were especially positive on this movie, and it really all comes back to Hugh,” said Chris Aronson, Fox’s senior vice president of domestic distribution.

“Wolverine’s” strong performance with women appears to have affected “Ghosts of Girlfriends Past,” which opened to a somewhat softer-than-expected $15.3 million. That’s the lowest launch ever for a Matthew McConaughey romantic comedy, though almost exactly in line with “Made of Honor,” which opened to $14.8 million last year against “Iron Man.”

But with no similarly themed films starting for a while, Warner Bros. and its New Line label are hoping that the $50-million-plus production will serve as effective counter-programming against the big-budget movies coming every Friday in May.

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“We’ll be weaving our way through the summer,” predicted Dan Fellman, president of domestic distribution for Warner.

There was apparently no room in the market for “Battle for Terra,” the 3-D animated film distributed by Lionsgate for Roadside Attractions, which grossed a dismal $1.1 million. Though it had a small run of 1,162 locations, “Terra’s” per-theater average was only $916, compared with $4,827 for “Girlfriends” and $21,225 for “Wolverine.”

Most holdover films also took sizable drops. “Obsessed,” which was last weekend’s No. 1 film, declined 57% to $12.2 million. “Fighting” was down 62% to $4.2 million.

But Paramount’s “The Soloist,” based on a book by Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez, seemed to benefit from positive word of mouth, dropping only 42% to $5.6 million after a weak start. And “Monsters vs. Aliens” continued its remarkably resilient run, declining just 32% in its sixth weekend to $5.8 million. The total domestic gross for DreamWorks Animation’s first 3-D feature is $182.4 million and will probably end up around $200 million.

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On the art house circuit, Jim Jarmusch’s “The Limits of Control” grossed a very strong $32,000 from one theater in New York City but didn’t do as well in L.A., where the Focus Features release made just $22,000 combined at the Arclight and the Landmark.

Michael Keaton’s directorial debut, “The Merry Gentleman,” distributed by Samuel Goldwyn Films, grossed a soft $72,240 at 24 locations. “Wolverine’s” smaller opening than “Iron Man” made for an overall flat weekend compared with last year, a rarity in a year that has seen ticket sales surge 16% according to research firm Media by Numbers.

When final grosses are reported Monday, the weekend could actually be down a bit, as three rival studios estimated “Wolverine” made a bit less than Fox’s $87-million figure.

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benfritz@yahoo.com

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BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX

BOX OFFICE

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

*--* Movie 3-day gross Total Weeks (studio) (millions) (millions) 1 X-Men Origins: Wolverine $87.0 $87.0 1 (Fox) 2 Ghosts of Girlfriends Past 15.3 15.3 1 (Warner Bros.) 3 Obsessed (Sony) 12.2 47.0 2 4 17 Again (Warner Bros.) 6.4 48.5 3 5 Monsters vs. Aliens 5.8 182.4 6 (DreamWorks) 6 The Soloist (Paramount) 5.6 18.1 2 7 Earth (Disney) 4.2 21.8 2 8 Fighting (Universal) 4.2 17.5 2 9 Hannah Montana (Disney) 4.1 70.9 4 10 State of Play (Universal) 3.7 30.9 3 *--*

Industry totals

*--* 3-day gross Change Year-to-date gross Change (in millions) from 2008 (in billions) from 2008 $160.0 +0.8% $3.2 +16.4% *--*

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*--* Note: A movie may be shown on more than one screen at each venue. Source: Media by Numbers Los Angeles Times *--*


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