Fockers Wins Ugly, True Grit Shoots Straight

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Glen Wilson

Robert De Niro and Daisy Tahan in a scene from Little Fockers

You may know the old joke about two brothers on Christmas Day. The pampered elder one got every glittering toy in the store, yet he moped and complained because it was just more of the expensive same. The younger brother, habitually ignored and mistreated, woke on Christmas Day to find his bedroom filled with manure. When his parents opened the boy's door, they found him digging ecstatically through the muck. He turned to them, grinned and said, "Where there's s___, there must be a pony."

This weekend, two studios, Sony with Little Fockers and Paramount with True Grit, experienced those feelings of elation and disappointment. According to early and very tentative studio estimates, Little Fockers — the third film in the dueling-families comedy series whose first two installments took in $847 million at the worldwide wickets — won the weekend at the North American box office with $34 million. That's fine; cigars all around — except that Hollywood's sultans of stats had thought this $100 million–budgeted addition to the all-star franchise would do much better. A decade after Meet the Parents' opening weekend of $28.6 million ($42.2 million at current ticket prices), and six years past Meet the Fockers' debut at $46.1 million ($56 million today), the premiere of the latest Focker film had a feckless feel. The movie's five-day take since hitting theaters Wednesday, Dec. 22, is $48.3 million, or less than the first three days of Meet the Fs. A mediocre B-minus grade from the CinemaScore poll of exiting moviegoers suggests that word of mouth will be "Eh."

The gift pony went to that straight-talking, sharpshooting gal of the Old West, Mattie Ross (acclaimed newcomer Hailee Steinfeld) and her True Grit remake, which is thought to have cadged $25.6 million over the weekend and $36.8 in its first five days. Mark that as a stalwart number for an entry in the long-dormant western genre and the sturdiest opening by far for Joel and Ethan Coen, the film's screenwriter-director-producer-editors. With critics pouring their balm on the movie, with Steinfeld picking up some year-end awards in the Supporting Actress category and with a B-plus CinemaScore (A-minus from the 25-and-younger set), this revisiting of the Charles Portis novel that inspired John Wayne's 1969 hit could prove to have long legs. It may also mean that Jeff Bridges — top-billed in True Grit and featured in the weekend's No. 3 finisher, TRON: Legacy — is, at 61, finally a mass-market movie star.

Among wide releases, which included Jack Black's instant flopperoo Gulliver's Travels, a case of the holiday blahs marked the weekend; revenue was down nearly 50% from the 2009 Christmas frame. A few reasons: this year Jesus' birthday fell on a Saturday, traditionally the heftiest day for film attendance, and last year boasted a trifecta of releases — Avatar ($75.6 million), Sherlock Holmes ($62.3 million) and Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel ($48.9 million) — that lured people away from their mince-pie desserts and into the theaters. This time, no single film screamed, "Must see me quick." Another factor will become clearer when the final grosses for Christmas 2010 are released Monday, Dec. 27: no one, from weather forecasters to industry analysts, could confidently predict the effect of an East Coast Boxing Day blizzard on the usual Christmas weekend box-office blitz.

[UPDATE: Sure enough, the East Coast snow storm made a hash of post-Christmas travel plans and the studios' early assessment of weekend grosses. All of the top 10 films finished below the Sunday-morning guesstimates — some by as much as 14%. (Specialty films took a hit too.) Here are the actual figures, as released late Monday, with the percentage drop from the predicted earnings: 1. Little Fockers, $30.8 million, down 10%. 2. True Grit, $24.85 million, down 3%. 3. TRON: Legacy, $19.15 million, down 5%. 4. The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, $9.5 million, down 14%. 5. Yogi Bear, $7.8 million, down 12%. 6. The Fighter, $7.6 million, down 12%. 7. Tangled, $6.4 million, down 1%. 8. Gulliver's Travels, $6.3 million, down 14%. 9. Black Swan, $6.2 million, down 6%. 10. The Tourist, $5.4 million, down 6%.]

Kids split their patronage between the latest Narnia episode, which after 2½ weeks has earned a wan $64 million in North America (but twice that abroad), and Yogi Bear, with only $36.8 million in its first 10 days — no Alvin, it. The Disney animated feature Tangled has climbed to $143.8 million domestic and in its fifth week has taken in more than DreamWorks' Megamind has amassed in its eighth.

Over in Specialty Land, where the month is full of smaller-budget films that hope to attract Oscar's attention, the ballet psychodrama Black Swan kept dancing like a demon; pulling in $6.6 million, for a cume of $29 million, it has acquired the scent of a critical and popular success. The Fighter, another film with eyes on the Academy, has the big mo too: $8.5 million in its third week, for a $27.6 million total to date. The King's Speech, the Brit drama that's expected to vie with The Social Network for the Best Picture statuette, expanded from 43 venues to 700 and earned a royal $4.6 million. Good news as well for two art-house items making their debuts: Sofia Coppola's Somewhere ($196,000 in seven houses over five days) and the French animated feature The Illusionist ($50,600 in just three theaters yesterday and today).

So it was grimaces or tight grins for the big-ticket Hollywood films. And among the little indies: ponies for everyone!

Here are the Sunday estimates of this weekend's top-grossing pictures in North American theaters, as reported by Box Office Mojo:

1. Little Fockers, $34 million; $48.3 million, first five days
2. True Grit, $25.6 million; $36.8 million, first five days
3. TRON: Legacy, $20.1 million; $88.3 million, second week
4. The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, $10.8 million; $63.9 million, third week
5. Yogi Bear, $8.8 million; $36.8 million, second week
6. The Fighter, $8.5 million; $27.6 million, third week
7. Gulliver's Travels, $7.2 million, first two days
8. Black Swan, $6.6 million; $29 million, fourth week
9. Tangled, $6.5 million; $143.8 million, fifth week
10. The Tourist, $5.7 million; $41.2 million, third week