A Christmas Carol Wins — and Loses — the Weekend

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imageMovers Digital LLC / Disney/ AP

Bob Cratchit carries Tiny Tim, both characters voiced by Gary Oldman, in a scene from A Christmas Carol.

It's Sunday morning in Hollywood, and the experts have declared the winners and losers of the weekend box office, for which the celebrity contenders were Jim Carrey in Disney's A Christmas Carol, George Clooney in The Men Who Stare at Goats and Cameron Diaz in The Box. Headline in The Wrap: "$31M Lump of Coal for 'Christmas Carol'." And from Nikki Finke's Deadline Hollywood: "Happy Holidays? Not for Stars: Carrey, Clooney, & Cameron Open Soft This Weekend." Meanwhile, Variety trumpeted that "'Precious' finds special place at box office."

The raw numbers — the studios' early tallies of the weekend gross, based on hard numbers for Friday, estimates for Saturday and sheer guesswork for Sunday — say that Christmas Carol won the weekend with $31 million, more than double the $14 million take of the runner-up, and last week's winner, Michael Jackson's This Is It. The very odd Clooney comedy came in third, with $13.3 million, just beating out the $12.9 million gleaned by the low-budget alien-abduction thriller The Fourth Kind. Trailing these were the unkillable phenomenon of Paranormal Activity, with $8.6 million in its seventh week, and Diaz's The Box, limping into sixth place with $7.9 million. Finally, playing at just 18 theaters, the heralded drama Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' By Sapphire amassed an impressive $1.8 million — the same amount that Hilary Swank's Amelia earned on more than 1,000 screens.

A Christmas Carol cost a bundle, $200 million, and no doubt Disney would have liked a bigger start for their way-before-Christmas movie. But it registered the best first weekend of any Jim Carrey movie of the past five years in which he has been seen. (In the CGI-cartoon version of Dr. Seuss' Horton Hears a Who, Carrey provided the elephant's voice.) And Goats opened stronger than any Clooney movie of this decade that didn't costar Brad Pitt. The Box certainly didn't measure up to recent Diaz openings, even middling ones. But, like Goats, it cost only about $25 million to make. And Warner Bros. didn't exactly lavish big bucks on marketing the movie. The age-old industry parlance applies to The Box: "It wasn't released — it escaped."

So why do Hollywood money-mavens say that The Men Who Stare at Goats and the man who stares at ghosts did so poorly? Because, in the land of make-believe, the success of a movie is as much perception as reality. Insiders predict films' box-office take in the early part of the week, monitor the returns on Saturday and then, when the numbers are announced on Sunday morning, say how surprised or disappointed they are. Forecasting the weekend grosses has become a rabid Internet pastime, and the spur to free publicity when news services cover the "story" in Sunday columns like this one. Stats freaks get to crystal-ball movies' grosses on Thursday, then analyze their predictions three days later. Some people bet money on the outcomes — the movie-industry equivalent of an office pool on college football.

But at a Vegas sports book, there's a tiny bit of science in the numbers. The odds for a game or a race are determined by the recent finishes of teams or horses; the line-makers are predicting outcomes on past strengths and weaknesses. New movies, especially nonsequels like Christmas Carol, Goats and The Box, have no track record; they have only the expectations, high or low, of industry swamis. The Sunday-morning "weekend" numbers are also a guessing game, since the final tabulations don't come in until Monday afternoon. Declaring a weekend champ on Sunday is like saying who won a World Series game after six innings. Twice this past summer, the wrong winner was proclaimed. And on one recent weekend, the Sunday take of nine of the 10 top films had been overestimated, some by as much as 5%.

Here are a few observations from a New York outsider. In the first weekend after Halloween, and with the spine-numbing pleasure of Paranormal Activity in many moviegoers' minds, The Fourth Kind benefitted from a beguilingly creepy ad campaign, giving glimpses of alien possession. Audiences didn't feel the same urgency, seven weeks before Christmas, to see the 467th version of A Christmas Carol, whose trailer emphasized hectic, hurtful chase scenes over the Scroogean character comedy and hearth-and-heart sentiment. As for Precious, $100,000 a screen is a feat accomplished only twice before (by Dreamgirls and Brokeback Mountain), but the movie had enormous promotion from executive producer Oprah Winfrey to complement its sheaf of enthusiastic reviews. Then again, it's the rare indie movie that, over its entire run, can gross as much as $31 million — the "disappointing" amount Disney's A Christmas Carol will have earned in its first three days.

Here are the official studio estimates for this weekend's top 10 movies in North American theaters, as reported by Box Office Mojo:

1. Disney's A Christmas Carol, $31 million, first weekend
2. Michael Jackson's This Is It, $14 million; $57.9 million, second week
3. The Men Who Stare At Goats, $13.3 million, first week
4. The Fourth Kind, $12.5 million,, first weekend
5. Paranormal Activity, $8.6 million; $97.4 million, seventh week
6. The Box, $7.9 million, first week
7. Couples Retreat, $6.4 million; $96 million, fifth week
8. Law Abiding Citizen, $6.2 million; $60.9 million, fourth week
9. Where the Wild Things Are, $4.2 million; $69.2 million, fourth week
10. Astro Boy, $2.6 million; $15.1 million, third week