Company Town: ‘True Grit’ is No. 1 for the weekend

On the first box-office weekend of 2011, it was all about which holiday movie had the most staying power.

That turned out to be the Coen brothers’ western “True Grit,” which after two weeks of nipping at the heels of “Little Fockers,” surpassed it to become the No. 1 movie in the U.S. and Canada with a studio-estimated $15 million in ticket sales.

“Fockers” was close behind with $13.8 million, down 47% on its third weekend.

Two additional movies, the Nicolas Cage historical action tale “Season of the Witch” and the Gwyneth Paltrow music drama “Country Strong,” failed to make much of an impact, with just $10.7 million and $7.3 million, respectively. “Country” expanded to wide release.


Both pictures were relatively inexpensive to make, however, leading the studios behind them to say they weren’t disappointed with the less than impressive results.

“Witch” cost about $40 million, and financier Relativity Media offset much of the budget with sales to foreign distributors, significantly reducing the risk of its domestic release. Still, the poorly reviewed movie set in the 14th century failed to draw many people and didn’t impress the audience that did come, with attendees giving it an average grade of C+, according to market research firm CinemaScore. That means it will likely fade from theaters quickly in the coming weeks.

An unusually high 69% of the audience for “Season of the Witch” was nonwhite, with more Latinos coming than any other ethnic group, according to exit polls.

Originally set to be released by Lionsgate last March, “Season of the Witch” was instead put out by Relativity under its new distribution operation.


“Country Strong” was an even smaller bet for Sony’s Screen Gems label, costing only $12.5 million to produce. It garnered better responses, getting an average grade of B from its mostly female audience. Unsurprisingly, given its subject matter, “Country Strong” was particularly popular in the South — the Dallas market, for instance, was the second-highest-grossing in the country.

“True Grit” this weekend became the first movie directed by Joel and Ethan Coen to surpass $100 million at the domestic box office. It could become their first to hit $150 million, particularly if the movie receives a number of Academy Award nominations.

Paramount Pictures and co-financier Skydance Productions are poised to make a big profit on the movie, which cost only $38 million.

“Little Fockers,” which stars Ben Stiller and Robert De Niro, fell further behind the previous film in the comedy series this weekend. Its drop was significantly higher than the 32% decline for “Meet the Fockers,” which opened on the same date in 2004, on its third weekend.

Still, with a domestic total of $124 million, an international take of $110 million and a projected worldwide total of about $300 million, the costly comedy will end up a solid hit, if not as big as its backers had hoped. Domestic distributor Universal Pictures, foreign distributor Paramount Pictures and Relativity Media spent between $130 million and $140 million to make the movie, according to three people familiar with the budget. A Universal spokeswoman said the cost was $100 million.

Among other movies already in theaters, two showed impressive staying power. The Darren Aronofsky-directed indie hit “Black Swan,” starring Natalie Portman, dropped only 6% on its sixth weekend in theaters, to $8.4 million. Its box-office total is an impressive $61.5 million.

The British historical drama “The King’s Speech” declined only 12% on its seventh weekend in theaters, to $6.8 million. Its box-office total is $33.3 million.

In limited release, the Ryan Gosling- Michelle Williams relationship drama “Blue Valentine” expanded from four to 40 theaters on its second weekend and grossed a solid if not spectacular $718,800, taking its total to $1.2 million.