In the end, “Avatar’s” epic run of seven straight weeks atop the North American box office wasn’t stopped by another mega-budgeted blockbuster, but a $25 million romantic drama.
The Nicholas Sparks-penned, Sony/Screen Gems-distributed “Dear John," rejected by Bob Shaye before he left New Line, will end the three-day weekend period with $32.4 million in domestic ticket sales, according to studio estimates, beating the most optimistic of pre-release tracking estimates by over $7 million.
It was not only the best opening ever for the Screen Gems label, it’s also the all-time highest gross for Super Bowl weekend, besting 2008’s “Hannah Montana/Miley Cyrus: The Best of Both Worlds Concert Tour” ($31.1 million).
On a weekend curtailed by not only the mass-audience drawing power of the Super Bowl, but also severe storms on the East Coast — overall, the domestic box office was down 24 percent from the same weekend a year ago, according to one studios’ estimates — “Avatar” finished second with $23.6 million.
However, the James Cameron-directed 3D film, distributed by Fox, continues to hold strong, yielding only a 25 percent week-to-week decline.
In third place, Lionsgate’s John Travolta thriller “From Paris with Love” underperformed at $8.1 million, a gross that was only about half of pre-release expectations that were in the mid-teens range.
As for “Dear John,” which unseated the film that broke records for domestic, foreign and worldwide box office, it had plenty of good buzz coming in, with Relativity Media even taking the time to remind box-office reporters earlier in the week that it had fully financed the film at a production budget (reported to be $35 million by the Los Angeles Times).
“We absolutely felt great about this movie,” Sony distribution president Rory Bruer told TheWrap.
"Young girls were dying to go to this, and because it has a little action in it and it’s not just a chick flick, the guys were willing to come along" said Ryan Kavanaugh, CEO of Relativity. "We’re thrilled that this movie played so well to the younger girl audiences, and it resonates with what youth want to see today."
“But no one could have predicted this kind of over-performance because of how gigantic ‘Avatar’ has been,” added Relativity marketing president Geoffrey Ammer.
Both Bruer and Ammer were quick to credit novelist Sparks, who already gestated one surprise romantic drama hit with 2004’s “The Notebook” ($115.6 million in worldwide gross for New Line).
The film, which stars “Mamma Mia!’s” Amanda Seyfried and “G.I. Joe’s” Channing Tatum as war-torn lovers, garnered an audience that was 84 percent female and 64 percent below the age of 21. It scored a B-plus grade from movie-word-of-mouth tracker CinemaScore.
“I don’t think the CinemaScore mattered in this case,” Ammer said. “This movie played. It was all those young girls Tweeting and telling their friends how good it is.”
Indeed, social networking didn’t hurt the youthfully targeted "John," with Sony reporting that the film’s Facebook page had attracted 900,000 fans through Friday.
Unfortunately for Lionsgate, it didn’t enjoy the same dynamics for “From Paris with Love.” Shot by Luc Besson’s EuropaCorp at a reported cost of $52 million, Lionsgate purchased North American distribution rights for the film and also covered prints and advertising.
Directed by Pierre Morel (“Taken”) and starring Travolta and Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Lionsgate’s tracking had projected a start in the mid-teens, and officials were quietly hoping for the kind of over-performance Warner Bros. enjoyed last weekend with the similarly profiled Mel Gibson movie “Edge of Darkness.”
“Tracking was nearly identical to ‘Edge of Darkness,’” noted one Lionsgate official. “But I think the weather, in part, killed us. We had over 200 theaters that didn’t report any figures last night.”
Meanwhile, for specialty division titles, the first weekend following the Academy Award nominations failed to deliver any huge spikes. In expanding to 819 theaters, however, Fox Searchlight’s “Crazy Heart,” starring Best Actor nominee Jeff Bridges, did manage to crack the top 10, taking in $3.7 million.
Here’s a look at the top 10 at the domestic box office this weekend
“Dear John” ($32.4m)
“From Paris with Love” ($8.1m)
“Edge of Darkness” ($7.0m)
“The Tooth Fairy” ($6.5m)
“When in Rome” ($5.5m)
“Book of Eli” ($4.8m)
“Crazy Heart” ($3.7m)
“Sherlock Holmes” ($2.6m)