‘How to Train Your Dragon’ starts modestly

Hollywood’s 3-D boom experienced some deflation this weekend as “How to Train Your Dragon” gave only a muted roar at the box office.

The newest 3-D animated movie from DreamWorks Animation sold $43.3 million worth of tickets in the U.S. and Canada, according to an estimate from distributor Paramount Pictures. That’s 27% lower than the $59.3-million debut of DreamWorks’ last release, “Monsters vs. Aliens,” on the same weekend last year.

The performance of “Dragon” is particularly disappointing given that it played at 638 more theaters with 3-D screens -- which carry increasingly high ticket price surcharges -- than its predecessor.

The John Cusack comedy “Hot Tub Time Machine,” the weekend’s only other new nationwide release, also had a soft opening, taking in $13.7 million.

The opening of “Dragon,” modest in comparison to its sizable $165-million production budget and aggressive marketing campaign, shows that despite the huge success of “Avatar” and “Alice in Wonderland,” 3-D isn’t enough in and of itself to draw audiences.

The digital technology still provides a boost to bottom lines, however, particularly as exhibitors have raised 3-D ticket surcharges recently. Theaters showing “Dragon” on digital 3-D screens generated 65% higher box-office revenue on average than those with only 2-D, while Imax 3-D screens averaged almost four times as much as 2-D.

The controversial high-pressure tactics that Paramount used to book “Dragon” in as many 3-D locations as possible against competition from “Alice” and next week’s “Clash of the Titans” apparently paid off as higher ticket prices and moviegoer preference for 3-D padded the box-office total of “Dragon” well beyond what it would have been in 2-D.

Audiences positive

And though “Dragon” didn’t start well, it may still end up a winner. Audiences gave the movie, short on the sarcasm and pop-culture references present in most DreamWorks Animation movies, an average grade of A, according to market-research firm CinemaScore, echoing almost universally positive reviews.

With no major new family films opening until “Shrek Forever After” in May, strong word-of-mouth could -- in a best-case scenario -- drive the movie to a domestic gross of around $200 million, which DreamWorks considers a benchmark for success.

“We have great playtime coming up with some kids out of school [on spring break],” said Anne Globe, DreamWorks Animation’s head of worldwide marketing. “Reviews and word of mouth should contribute to long-term playability.”

Track record

Although the original “Shrek” went from a $42.3-million opening in 2001 to ultimately gross $267.7 million, other DreamWorks animated features with similar debuts haven’t fared as well. “Bee Movie” started with $38 million and finished at $126.6 million, and “Over the Hedge” opened to $38.5 million and had a final domestic gross of $155 million.

“Dragon” had a less-than-impressive international debut as well, generating $31 million in 35 foreign territories.

Country by country, “Dragon” ticket sales were decidedly mixed when compared to “Monsters,” which had a foreign run considered weak by DreamWorks.

“Dragon” is playing better than “Monsters” did in Brazil, Germany and Russia but started more slowly in Australia, Italy, Mexico and Spain.

It has yet to launch in several major markets, including France, Great Britain, South Korea and Japan.

The opening of “Hot Tub Time Machine” marks a modest disappointment for MGM, given the film’s $36-million production budget. The R-rated comedy about friends who travel back to the 1980s drew more people who remember the decade than those who just like laughing at leg warmers and Poison concerts, because 58% of its audience was over 25.

Although “Alice in Wonderland’s” domestic run is winding down after four weeks in theaters, with $17.3 million this weekend, it is still humming overseas, bringing in $46 million from 51 foreign territories thanks in part to strong openings in France and China. It has now collected $293 million domestically and $363 million internationally.

In limited release, Focus Features expanded the Ben Stiller indie drama “Greenberg” from three theaters to 181 and took in a pretty good $1.1 million, bringing its total to $1.2 million.

Walt Disney Studios opened its animation documentary “Waking Sleeping Beauty” to a modest $33,100 at five theaters.