lions2.jpgSUNDAY AM: I heard Tom Cruise did Lions For Lambs for “virtually nothing” to help kick-start his revival of United Artists. Without that, the R-rated movie starring Cruise, Meryl Streep and Robert Redford, who also directed, never would have gotten off the ground. Maybe that would have been kinder. Because even with a very moderate budget of $35 million, the political polemic was killed by moviegoers and reviewers alike this weekend, opening to a paltry $6.5 million from 2,215 theaters with an anemic per screen average as well. Even with only a 92-minute running time, the pic even fell far short of the studio’s rock-bottom expectations of $8 million.

Jerry Seinfeld’s Bee Movie was the weekend’s big winner since the PG toon continues to attract both young and old alike. Saturday kiddie matinees made the big difference, and the DreamWorks Animation holdover distributed wide by Paramount raked in $26 million from 3,944 venues ($6.2 mil Friday and $11.3 mil on Saturday) for a fat new cume of $72.2 mil. beemovie92.jpgNote that it is very rare for a film to jump to the No. 1 spot after opening at No. 2 its first week in release. (2005’s The Wedding Crashers and 2003’s Elf both did it.)

In second place, R-rated American Gangster continues to heavily draw adult and urban audiences its 2nd weekend out, making $24.2 million (down 44%) from 3,059 dates for a hefty new cume of $80.6 mil. The Imagine/Universal biopic starring Oscar-nodded Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe and directed by Ridley Scott, looks to have the same legs as Academy Award winner The Departed. Could Best Picture also be in American Gangster‘s future?

denzel_washington12.jpgTaking the 3rd spot, Warner’s Vince Vaughn laugher Fred Claus tried to market itself as Elf 2. But it wasn’t as funny nor as sweet, and potential audiences sensed that. I’m told tracking showed that even though kids wanted to see the PG pic, their parents weren’t sure it was suitable for children. And it does seem kinda early for a Christmas-themed release. Studios varied wildly on the Fred Claus wide debut, with Warner’s claiming it made $20 mil from 3,603 plays, others saying $19.2M, still more estimating $18.2M, and a few maintaining only $17.7M.  We’ll know for sure on Monday.

UA/MGM’s Lions For Lambs placed 4th. But the question Hollywood is asking today is what sank the movie: its star Tom Cruise or its controversial Iraq War subject matter? Judging from the exit polling, I’d have to say the latter, vince_vaughn1.jpgbecause the attendance for this film split straight down political lines already sharply drawn in this country. It was stronger on both coasts than in the middle of the country, and it played better in Blue states than Red states, and it appealed to older, more upscale, and educated audiences. United Artists noted that Lions For Lambs “performed much better” than other anti-war themed movies In The Valley Of Elah and Rendition but that’s not saying much — all focused on the war and flopped at the box office. The film got some of the worst reviews ever for a prestige project like this — only 27% positive according to Rotten Tomatoes, and Redford’s direction was roundly criticized as was the talky script that played like a stage production. If it weren’t for the marketing campaign claiming it was presenting both sides, the pic might have tanked even worse. p2_1.jpgAs for Cruise’s career as a movie star, I believe the real test of his appeal will come the next time he stars in an action thriller, his speciality. If that pic tanks, then even Tom will know he’s toast.

The only other newcomer to the Top 10 was P2 which is the first release by the recently created production and distribution entity Summit Entertainment. It gave this Christmas Eve-themed thriller a soft launch because the R-rated pic was made and financed before Summit’s cash infusion via Merrill Lynch and its transition from a leading foreign sales company that took equity in select films. Placing only 9th, Summit said P2 debuted with $2.2 mil from 2,131 runs (that number of theaters showed exhibition’s willingness to embrace a new distributor). The small take was expected, but Summit’s only exposure is a limited P&A spend because international sales more than covered the film’s budget.

The rest of the Top 10 were familiar titles: 1. Bee Movie [wkd $26M], (cume $72.1M); 2. American Gangster [wkd $24.2M], (cume $80.6M); 3. Fred Claus [wkd [$19.2M], (cume $19.2M); 4. Lions For Lambs [wkd $6.5M], (cume $6.5M); 5. Dan In Real Life [wkd $5.8M], (cume $30.6M); 6. Saw IV [wkd $5M], (cume $58M); 7. The Game Plan [wkd $2.4M], (cume $85.4M); 8. P2 [wkd $2.2M], (cume $2.2M); 9. 30 Days Of Night [wkd $2.1M], (cume $37.3M); 10. Martian Child [wkd $1.7M], (cume $6M).

joel_coen1.jpgAs for this weekend’s other debuts, Miramax’s R-rated No Country For Old Men from the Coen Brothers starring Tommy Lee Jones and Javier Bardem had the best per screen average — $17,219 on Saturday — of all the films in release. It opened with $1.2 mil from just 28 theaters — an incredible feat. And Sony’s PG newcomer Saawariya debuted in 85 venues and took in $600K.

This was the first “down” weekend after 1 “up” weekend following 6 “down” weekends compared to last year.

NOTE: For the first time, I have opened my weekly box office reports to comments. Monitored comments. Please confine your remarks to the movies at hand, especially when it involves your general political comments. This is a film, not a political, forum.