SUNDAY AM: Universal’s American Gangster was a real monster at the domestic box office this weekend, gunning down all the competition for $46.3 million in gross receipts at 3,054 theaters. beemovie8.jpgThe Imagine production filled with Oscar winners & nominees — written by Steven Zaillian, directed by Ridley Scott and starring Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe — raked in $16 million Friday and $17.8 million Saturday (up 11%). That makes this biopic drama the 2nd biggest R-rated motion picture opening in history for a movie that’s more than 2 1/2-hours long (behind Troy‘s $46.8M but ahead of Gladiator‘s $34.8M). It’s also Denzel’s and Russell’s career best opening ever, and the second biggest drama in history to open in November (behind Eight Mile‘s $51.2M but ahead of Jarhead‘s $27.7M).

“This is as great as I could possibly have dreamed,” a studio source told me. Indeed, there were huge sighs of relief around Universal which had been trying bigtime all week to lower expectations for American Gangster’s debut for a myriad reasons. Not the least of which was the sudden appearance of a pirated copy on the Internet, plus a fall slump with many R-rated dramas failing to gain traction. But American Gangster was the highest grossing film of Fall 2007 (ahead of Saw IV‘s $31.7M), its large gross generated by an audience that was more than 50% over 30 years old.denzel_washington12.jpg But this weekend ends all that with the biggest anticipated box office from Friday through Sunday since 2007’s record-breaking summer. Busy like a bee — specifically Jerry Seinfeld’s PG-rated Bee Movie which opened a big No. 2 this weekend. My sources say the DreamWorks Animation toon distributed by Paramount took in around $10.2 million Friday from 3,928 venues but then really buzzed during Saturday kiddie matinees to take in $17 million (up a whopping 66% that day). This animated pic aimed at a four-quadrant audience enjoyed a honey of a $39.1 million weekend. Still, with a running time of only 90 minutes, Bee Movie was able to squeeze in many more showings than American Gangster which clocks in at 2 hours 38 minutes.

gangster4.jpgBoth big hits had very different marketing strategies. The team behind American Gangster started way back at the very beginning of the summer with only one trailer (tagged to Ocean’s Thirteen) and then staying with just that ad until only two weeks ago. This was a major departure for the studio. But a single clip especially resonated — bad guy Denzel showing what a good son he is by buying his mother a house. “This most talked-about scene was one of many powerful  suggestions of the complexity of the film,” a Universal insider told me. The team behind the movie also wanted to draw on all the similarities to last year’s Oscar-winner The Departed, which also centered on cops and gangsters, also starred marquee actors and had a famous director, also earned an R rating, and also received stellar reviews (80% positive for American Gangster on Rotten Tomatoes). The Departed not only opened to $26.7 million from almost the same number of theaters but went on to earn $132+M domestically and $289+M worldwide. Icing on American Gangster‘s cake was when hip hop impresario JayZ personally created an album inspired by it. And its plot about a Harlem crime boss, plus young African American actors in supporting roles, appealed to urban audiences. Moviegoers were ethnically diverse with 44% Caucasians and 36% African Americans.

beemovie9.jpgIn contrast, Jerry Seinfeld, who voiced and co-wrote and produced, went anywhere and everywhere promoting his new movie almost to the point of overexposure. (Jerry got busted for his arrogant appearance on Larry King who’s part of the pic; the viral video was all over the Internet Friday.)  He also did anything and everything to market it, including pitch MickeyD. As a result, the Bee Movie is that rare toon trying to cash in on both the kid market (with animation) and the adult market (with Seinfeld fans). “There’s nothing traditionally family about Jerry’s position in the marketplace,” an exec told me tonight. So, despite so-so reviews (55% positive) and no records set, Bee Movie did B+ biz. I’ve learned the pic proved strongest with moviegoers under 25, especially young families and young parents. It skewed slightly more female than male. Across the board, the biggest draw was its type of movie, animation. And the No. 2 reason was Seinfeld himself. “Jerry was so intrinsically linked to the movie,” a Paramount insider told me today.

The only other newcomer at the box office was New Line’s Martian Child starring John Cusack in what barely qualified as a Lifetime TV movie instead of in 2,020 big screen theaters. It’s yet another flop for Bob Shaye’s company, coming in only 6th with $1.1 million Friday and dropping to 7th after Saturday’s paltry $1.5 million for what was a disastrous $3.5 mil weekend.

The rest of the top 10 were familiar titles. Here’s the chart:

  1. 1. American Gangster $16M Fri, $17.8M Sat, [wkd $46.3M], (cume $46.3M)
  2. 2. Bee Movie $10.2M Fri, $17M Sat, [wkd $39.1M], (cume $39.1M)
  3. 3. Saw IV $3.6M Fri, $4.4M Sat, [wkd $10.6M], (cume $50.6M)
  4. 4. Dan In Real Life $2.6M Fri, $3.6M Sat [wkd $8.1M], (cume $22.9M)
  5. 5. 30 Days Of Night $1.2M Fri, $1.6M Sat, [wkd $4M], (cume $34.2M)
  6. 6. The Game Plan $1.0M Fri, $1.9M Sat, [wkd $3.8M], (cume $81.9M)
  7. 7. Martian Child $1.1M Fri, $1.5M Sat, [wkd $3.6M], (cume $3.6M)
  8. 8. Michael Clayton $853K Fri, $1.3M Sat, [wkd $2.9M], (cume $33.2M)
  9. 9. Why Did I Get Married? $751K Fri, $1.3M Sat, [wkd $2.7M], (cume $51.2M)
  10. 10. Gone Baby Gone $687K Fri, $1M Sat, [wkd $2.3M], (cume $14.8M)