COMEDY RULES! 'Four Christmases' #1 For Thanksgiving Weekend; 'Bolt' #2, 'Twilight' #3, 'Australia' Opens Only #5

SUNDAY AM: Waistlines expanded on Thanksgiving Day, and this 3-day weekend and 5-day holiday shaped up as big for moviegoing, too. Maybe it’s because of the grim economy that audiences wanted laughs, but the mediocre PG-13 comedy Four Christmases, helped by a short 80-minute running time, knocked off Twilight for No. 1 on T-Day and easily stayed on top all weekend. The expected frontrunner from New Line/Warner Bros starring Vince Vaughn and Reese Witherspoon overperformed for $31.6M for the 3-day weekend (which is far better than Vince’s last seasonal outing of $18.5M in the just plain awful Fred Claus) and $46.7M for the 5-day holiday.

Jumping into No. 2 because of big kiddie matinees and Thanksgiving audiences who love family pics, holdover Disney’s Bolt really cleaned up with 101% of its opening weekend which is rare. On Saturday, it did $10M and its estimated Sunday is $5.7M added to Friday’s $10.8M. That’s a 3-day total of $26.6M and 5-day holiday of $36M and total cume to date of $66.9M. The toon had a  big comeback of $5.1M Wednesday in 3,651 plays after a difficult debut last weekend when Twilight skewed younger than expected.

Twilight started out strong, then ended up #3 in 3,419 venues for Summit Entertainment’s no-sex, no-violence, no-stars vampire movie adaptation of Stephenie Meyer’s best-selling book. The PG-13 pic made $26.4M for the 3-day weekend and moved up to No. 2 with $39.5M for the 5-day holiday. The film crossed the $100 million mark at the North American box office on November 28th after only 8 days of release. Its new cume is $119.7M.

New 007 holdover Quantum of Solace from MGM/Sony was No. 4 and earned from 3,458 runs a 3-day weekend of $19.5M and for the 5-day holiday $28.1M. Its three-week North American cume is $142M, pacing well ahead of Daniel Craig’s first Bond actioner Casino Royale, which ended its 3-week run with close to $116M. Overseas, Quantum of Solace has sold a total of $340.1M in tickets, so its worldwide total to date is just over $482M.

At first, the big surprise was the poor 7th place opening Wednesday of 20th Century Fox’s sweeping period epic Australia with only $2.5M from 2,642 theaters. But it moved up to finish #5 with 20% more than the studio’s pre-release expectations: $14.8M for the 3-day weekend and $20M for the 5-day holiday. “This indicates tremendous word-of-mouth kicked in,” a Fox exec told me Sunday. “Australia is positioned for a long run and is becoming THE choice for adults.” Exit polling showed the audience demo breakdown was 65/35 over and under 25 and balanced on gender lines, 52/48 female and male.

With a long 2 hour, 45 minute running time, with credits, and only 52% positive reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, rival studios think the pic won’t have legs or Oscars. Still, Fox is pointing to rave reviews in both The New York Times and Los Angeles Times, plus counting on very strong international appeal because director Baz Lurhmann’s films (Moulin Rouge, Romeo & Juliet) do 2x overseas what they do here. (“They have never been sprinters, they have been marathons. It takes awhile for audiences to catch up to his movies, which is why they have such large multiples,” a Fox exec told me.).

All along, Hollywood questioned whether Baz and fellow Oz countrymen Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman working for a media conglomerate founded Down Under could be a hit in North America. But Australia now looks like a low-grossing Far And Away with Vegemite that’s more about Aussie Pride than profit. As for whether financially this is Rupert’s Folly, Fox keeps insisting that the film’s cost of $125M was tempered by 40% Australian government tax credits to bring Australia‘s negative cost down to $75M. (As an insider explained, “If you believe in a project and believe in a filmmaker, then the thing to do is to try to responsibly protect the economic downside with partners and investments.” Yet again, Kidman proves box office poison while Jackman has only made money playing Wolverine. Worse, Australia follows a summer and fall series of box office losers for the studio.

At No. 6, DreamWorks Animation’s toon sequel Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa distributed by Paramount started its 4th weekend in release at 3,709 venues. Thanks to big kiddie matinees, it scored  $14.5M for the 3-day weekend and $19.6M for the 5-day holiday and a hefty new cume of $159.5M.

Jason Statham is still a reliable draw in the franchise Transporter 3, now distributed by Lionsgate after the first two were released by Fox, in 2,626 dates for 7th place. The actioner made $12M over the 3-day weekend and $18.2M for the 5-day holiday.  At No. 8, Universal’s rauchy comedy holdover Role Models hung in for $5.2M for the 3-day weekend and $7.8M for the 5-day holiday on 2,195 plays. Its new cume is $57.8M.

Miramax’s The Boy In Striped Pajamas in 582 theaters placed 9th with $1.5M for the 3-day weekend and $2.1M for the 5-day holiday for a new cume of $5.1M.

The Wednesday opening of Gus Van Sant’s Oscar-touted pic Milk starring Best Actor nomination shoo-in Sean Penn was released Wednesday by Focus Features into 35 theaters in 19 major cities. The well reviewed biopic continued to be the top grossing film in the majority of the core houses, with San Diego, Washington DC, Portland, Boston, Chicago, Atlanta, Dallas and Seattle remaining very strong. As expected, Milk scored the best per screen averages of the holiday weekend — the highest of $14,945 on Saturday. It took in $1.3M for the 3-day weekend and $1.8M for the 5-day holiday.

Another award-buzzed film is 11th place Slumdog Millionaire from Fox Searchlight performed well in 49 theaters. It made $1.3M for the 3-day weekend and $1.7M for the 5-day holiday for a new cume of $3.5M.

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