dear john posterSUNDAY AM UPDATE: So Avatar was done in by a chick flick no less! Despite the monster winter storm on the East Coast, Relativity’s sappy military-themed love story Dear John opened to a much bigger than expected $13.8 million Friday and $12.4M Saturday (down only -10%) from 2,969 North American theaters. Which means the pic based on the Nicholas Sparks novel and distributed by Sony/Screen Gems, has broken Avatar‘s 7-week reign atop the domestic box office despite higher 3D ticket prices. G.I. Joe‘s Channing Tatum and Mamma Mia!‘s Amanda Seyfried scored a $32.4M weekend compared to Avatar‘s 23.6M. “It’s not only the dragon slayer, but by a lot,” one Sony exec gushed to me. Dear John is also Screen Gems best ever debut and the biggest Super Bowl weekend opener, topping Hannah Montana’s $31.1M. Females made up 84% of the opening weekend audience, while 64% of the moviegoers were under age 21.

Twentieth Century Fox’s technopic took in $6.1M Friday (-18%, another amazing hold) and $11.3M Saturday for a $630M cume that’s broken every highest grossing record in Hollywood and the world. Dear John‘s overperformance is due to several factors: A running time of only 102 minutes, which offset the higher ticket prices for Avatar which clocks in at 160 minutes. And some great field marketing by Jeff Blake and his team, including a premiere on the North Carolina base at Fort Bragg as well as promotions at 51 Army bases worldwide.

From Paris with Love posterMeanwhile, Lionsgate’s 3rd place From Paris With Love starring John Travolta and directed by Taken helmer Pierre Morel is very soft. The R-rated pic opened with only a $3 million debut Friday but did +33% better Saturday for $4.0M from 2,722 runs for an underperforming $8.1M weekend.

This also was the start of Crazy Heart‘s 8th week, but this marks the first fully national week of release. That’s because the Fox Searchlight film scored a Best Actor Oscar nomination for Jeff Bridges, considered the shoo-in for that category. The pic expanded into 819 theatres and will likely expand further on February 12th into 1,000+ dates. As a result, Crazy Heart reached the Top 10 this weekend for the first time in its run. It’s also having the strongest post-Oscar nod bounce.

Meanwhile, Summit Entertainment worked with exhibitors who wanted to run The Hurt Locker after it was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar. This, in spite of the fact that the DVD has been selling quite well since January 12th. The weekend estimate was $123K (+439%) playing at 110 theaters (+72). Its North American cume to date is now $13.4M. 

Here’s the Top 10 as of Sunday:

1. Dear John (Relativity/Sony) NEW [2,969 Theaters]
Friday $13.8M, Saturday $12.4M, Weekend $32.4M
2. Avatar (Fox) Week 8 [3,000 Theaters]
Friday $6.1M, Saturday $11.3M, Weekend $23.6M, Cume $630
3. From Paris With Love (Lionsgate) NEW [2,722 Theaters]
Friday $3.0M, Saturday $4.0M, Weekend $8.1M
4. Edge of Darkness (Alcon/Warner Bros) Week 2 [3,066 Theaters]
Friday $2.3M, Saturday $3.5M, Weekend $7M, Cume $29M
5. Tooth Fairy (Fox) Week 3 [3,218 Theaters]
Friday $1.6M, Saturday $3.5M, Weekend $6.5M, Cume $34.3M
6. When in Rome (Disney) Week 2 [2,456 Theaters]
Friday $2.0M, Saturday $2.5M, Weekend $5.5, Cume $20.8M
7. Book of Eli (Warner Bros) Week 4 [2,820 Theaters]
Friday $1.5M, Saturday $2.5M, Weekend $4.8M, Cume $82.1M
8. Crazy Heart (Fox Searchlight) Week 8 [819 Theaters]
Friday $1.07M, Saturday $1.9M, Weekend $3.6M, Cume $11.1M
9. Legion (Sony) Week 3 [2,339 Theaters]
Friday $1.06M, Saturday $1.7M, Weekend $3.4M, Cume $34.6M
10. Sherlock Holmes (Warner Bros) Week 7 [1,805 Theaters]
Friday $790K, Saturday $1.3M, Weekend $2.6M, Cume $201.5M

THURSDAY 5 PM: Will Avatar get a Dear John letter? Is this the weekend James Cameron’s technopic falls to #2? That’s what the Hollywood experts are thinking. Online ticket sales, where buyers tend to skew young, show Relativity’s Dear John is leading Avatar on Fandango 51% to 31% — the first time Avatar has fallen out of #1 since the pic opened. This weekend would be the 8th in a row that James Cameron’s 3D technopic could stay No. 1 at the domestic box office. But distributor Sony/Screen Gems is sneaking in that sappy love story Dear John starring G.I. Joe‘s Channing Tatum and Mamma Mia!‘s Amanda Seyfried and directed by Lasse Hallström, and the studio thinks it can knock off Avatar. “They are not suckin’ on a crack pipe. It’s possible,” a Fox exec admitted to me just now.

Both PG-13 pics look to make around $24M this weekend unless the expected East Coast monster snowstorm depresses attendance. But Dear John‘s running time is only 102 minutes, which could offset the higher ticket prices for Avatar which clocks in at 160 minutes. And then there’s the Super Bowl which will hit Avatar harder. As one of my box office gurus analyzes, “Dear John needs to beat Avatar on Friday. But Avatar probably wins Saturday. Then Dear John should win Super Bowl Sunday. Should be fun.”

Also stealing some of Avatar’s testosterone will be John Travolta/Jonathan Rhys-Meyer’s R-rated From Paris With Love directed by the real star of Taken, director Pierre Morel. This Lionsgate pic has an even shorter running time of 95 minutes so it may open to $12M for the weekend. “Paris has some life to it,” a rival studio exec tells me. “Decent awareness, best among males over age 25. That does not bode well for the Sunday spanking they will take.”