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Relief! Box Office Up 32% With $31M From Sandler and Bieber

Big photo finish by Sony comedy and Paramount concert film lift box office to its strongest weekend so far this year; even Disney's "Gnomeo" ($25.5M) comes up big

Collective sigh from the movie business -- they needed that.

Coming into this Valentine's Day weekend down 28 percent in domestic box-office revenue in 2011, the studios got strong $31 million performances from Sony Adam Sandler comedy "Just Go With It" and Paramount's Justin Bieber 3D concert movie "Never Say Never," as well as a big $25.5 million start from Disney CG-animated kids movie "Gnomeo & Juliet."

Not counting advanced screenings, "Bieber's" three-day total was $30.3 million, but the box-office championship won't be decided until Monday-morning actuals are released.

But no matter which film ends up winning the box office this weekend, the market won overall.

It was the first weekend so far in 2011 in which the box office was up year to year, with the domestic market surging 32 percent, according to one studio's estimate.

Here's how the top 10 finished. Full report continues below chart:

One other film debuted widely this weekend: Focus' Roman Army-themed action film "The Eagle" starring Channing Tatum opened in accordance with its soft tracking, grossing an estimated $8.6 million. The film cost only around $25 million to make.

Starting out in 15 locations, meanwhile, Fox Searchlight ensemble comedy "Cedar Rapids" took in $310,789 for a soft $20,719-per-screen average. The movie stars Ed Helms ("The Daily Show," "The Office") as a Midwestern bumpkin who gets in adventures at his first sales convention. John C. Reilly co-stars.

But it was Bieber who stole the show.

The first film from Paramount's new Insurge label -- a division set up with the aim of getting films made and into theaters quickly and cheaply -- "Never Say Never" arrived with pre-release tracking estimates that were all over the board.

The problem: Plenty of young women knew the movie was coming out, but it was hard to tell if they were actually going to go to the theater and see it.

"You try getting into the mind of an 11-year-old girl," quipped a rival-studio executive, who had the Bieber movie pegged at "somewhere between $12 million-$60 million" for the three-day weekend period.

"It was impossible to track," conceded Don Harris, general manager of distribution for Paramount. "The professional tracking services certainly had no handle on what the movie was going to do. But we were looking at our Friday numbers. And you have movie that cost $13 million to make and only $20 million to market, and we had Friday grosses that were around $12 million-$13 million. That's when you want to be in this business a lot."

Opening at 3,105 locations, "Never Say Never" drew an audience that was 84 percent female and 67 percent under the age of 25 -- kind of what you'd expect.

The movie scored an "A" from customer-satisfaction survey firm Cinemascore ... and an "A-plus" among women of all ages.

Upshot: This Bieber thing could be around for a while (but Harris was unwilling to divulge as to whether Insurge was planning any more concert movies for the teenybopper star).

Meanwhile, every tracking firm in Hollywood had Sandler's "Just Go With It" pegged for an opening above $30 million -- it's a number Sandler comedies have hit with some consistency over the years.

Publicly, at least, Sony kept its pre-release estimate conservative, predicting a high-20s finish.

"It's just the way the box office has performed since the end of last year," said Rory Bruer, Sony's president of worldwide distribution. "Quite frankly, it left you to think that no one is going to hit the kind of numbers you'd expect them to hit."

Leave it Sandler -- despite universally weak reviews (18 percent on Rotten Tomateos), "Just Go With It' received an A-minus Cinemascore overall and an A grade among women.

Budgeted at a robust $80 million, give or take a few million, "Just Go With It" also opened in 16 international territories, grossing an estimated $5.1 million.

"I think the thing about Sandler is his audiences know it's going to be funny and they know they're going to have a good time," Bruer added.

Meanwhile, Disney managed to exploit a sizeable hole in the marketplace with "Gnomeo," a movie that had been in development at the studio for about a decade.

With no kid-targeted film released since Warner's "Yogi Bear" in mid-December -- and no other one scheduled to show up until Paramount's "Rango" on March 4 -- the lawn-gnome-themed Shakespeare twist exceeded tracking estimates that tended to fall in the high-teens/low-20s.