Box Office Wrap: America Hearts Valentine's Day

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Jennifer Garner as Julia Fitzpatrick and Ashton Kutcher as Reed Bennett in Valentine's Day.

Let the 2010 movie year finally begin! After nearly two months of Avatar taking on new challengers each week and demolishing them all with the ease of Ken Jennings during his Jeopardy! run, the all-time box office champ slipped to fourth place, as a trio of new pictures, each aimed at a specific part of the mass audience, attracted sizable crowds. The $193 million predicted for the Friday-to-Sunday frame is the most ever for a President's Day weekend.

The critically reviled but demographically savvy Valentine's Day set a seasonal record with $52.4 million for the first three days of the long weekend, according to studio estimates. Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief, the first film from Rick Riordan's best-selling tetralogy, lured kids and their parents, with an oversize $31.2 million. Males with no kids and no dates went to the R-rated period horror film The Wolfman, which earned a respectable $30.6 million. This marks the first weekend that three new films were on top since March 20-22, 2009, when Knowing, I Love You, Man and Duplicity headed the chart.

Valentine‚s Day won the full four-day weekend, taking in a record $66.9 million, according to Box Office Mojo. Percy Jackson held second with $38.8 million; The Wolfman was third with $36.5 million. Avatar held strong in fourth, slipping only 2% from last weekend for $30 million. The James Cameron eco-epic has now earned $667.6 million, the all-time leader in current dollars and, in real dollars, is now 17th on the all-time list, between two Steven Spielberg adventures: Raiders of the Lost Ark and Jurassic Park.

Rather than attempt holiday fare themed to U.S. Commanders in Chief (Vince Vaughn as Abe Lincoln? Denzel Washington as George Washington?), director Garry Marshall found an ensemble romantic-comedy script, similar to the 2003 Brit film Love, Actually, and assembled an A-list crowd of actors: Jamie Foxx and Queen Latifah, Julia Roberts and her niece Emma, two Jessicas (Alba and Garner), two baby Taylors (Lautner and Swift) and prime dudes named Ashton, Bradley and Topher, with 75-year-old Shirley MacLaine added for the senior set. (Marshall is also 75; kitsch knows no age barriers.)

The result was a candygram filled with high fructose corn syrup and reviled by reviewers; the movie rated an abysmal 15% on the Rotten Tomatoes poll of critics. To Jim Slotek of Jam! Movies it was "a rom-com monstrosity"; Entertainment Weekly's Lisa Schwarzbaum dubbed it "Crap, Actually"; and virtually every other reviewer approached Valentine's Day as if it were VD. But look: if audiences followed critics, the weekend's top movie (100% on Rotten Tomatoes) would have been American Radical: The Trials of Norman Finkelstein. Marshall can trash-compact those notices and frame his royalty checks. The film will have earned as much this weekend as it cost to make. Hollywood will gladly take heaps of abuse, as long as the profit margin is even bigger.

Ever since the first Harry Potter smash in 2001, the industry has been looking for that next killer franchise of movies based on famous books for children. The quest has often proved fruitless. The Spiderwick Chronicles and The Golden Compass expired after one episode; and the first two films based on C.S. Lewis's Narnia novels became so expensive that Disney ditched the idea of making a third. (It has been picked up elsewhere.) Hard to say whether Percy Jackson, the son of Poseidon, will flourish on screen, but it has a hopeful start, for which director Chris Columbus deserves some credit. On his own, Columbus is no hit machine: his last two features, Rent and I Love You, Beth Cooper, earned only $29 million and $15 million, respectively. But as the launch deliverer for kids'-movie series, the guy is peerless. He directed the first two Home Alone comedies and the first two Harry Potter films, which together amassed nearly $2.7 billion at the worldwide box office.

There's no word yet on a Percy sequel, or who might direct it. But kids' movies have been among the most reliable moneymakers the past few months. Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel has earned $214 million and The Princess and the Frog more than $100 million, while the Dwayne Johnson tyke comedy Tooth Fairy, in its fourth week, is the highest-ranking holdover except for Avatar. And as proved by the success of Valentine's Day and Dear John (which dethroned Avatar last week but fell to fifth this time), romance has made a big comeback.

Oddly, it's the burly action movies, usually the dominant genre, that fell out of recent audience favor. The otherworldly Daybreakers and Legion have underperformed, as has Mel Gibson's comeback revenge vehicle Edge of Darkness. And although $30 million isn't a bad start for Benicio Del Toro as Wolfman, the picture will need long legs, here and abroad, to earn back its husky $125 budget. Only Sherlock Holmes ($204 million) and The Book of Eli (which will hit $100 million before it's finished) have capitalized on blood and fisticuffs. Indeed, depending on whether you count Avatar as a love story or a war epic (it's both), it's been three months since an unadulterated guy movie took the top spot: 2012, on the weekend of Nov. 13-15. Since then: New Moon, The Blind Side, The Princess and the Frog, Avatar, Dear John and Valentine's Day.

The familiar box office priorities may reassert themselves next weekend, with the opening of Martin Scorsese's take on the violent horror-mystery story Shutter Island, starring Leonardo DiCaprio. If that pricey effort should tank, Hollywood may have to consider the unthinkable: letting the tastes of women and little children lead them to box-office gold.

Here are the weekend's top-grossing pictures in North American theaters, as reported by Box Office Mojo.com:

1. Valentine's Day, $52.4 million, first weekend
2. Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief, $31.2 million, first weekend
3. The Wolfman, $30.6 million, first weekend
4. Avatar, $22 million; $639.6 million, ninth weekend
5. Dear John, $15.3 million; $53.2 million, second week
6. Tooth Fairy, $5.6 million; $41.5 million, fourth week
7. From Paris With Love, $4.7 million; $15.9 million, second week
8. Edge of Darkness, $4.6 million; $36.1 million, third week
9. Crazy Heart, $4 million; $16.5 million, ninth weekend
10. When in Rome, $3.4 million; $26 million, third week