Box-Office Weekend: A Dear John for Avatar

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Scott Garfield / Sony Screen Gems

A scene from Dear John, with Channing Tatum and Amanda Seyfried

Call it a Super Bowl weekend upset or proof of the law of diminishing returns — or even the triumph of one love story over another. Whatever the explanation, Dear John, a young-adult weepie based on a novel by The Notebook's Nicholas Sparks, dethroned Avatar as king of the domestic box office, according to early studio estimates. The clear victory — $32.4 million for Dear John to the sci-fi eco-epic's $23.6 million — ends Avatar's weekend winning streak at seven. James Cameron's previous smash, Titanic, reigned for an astounding 16 consecutive weeks, from its opening in December 1997 all the way through the late-March 1998 Oscar ceremony, where the waterlogged romance took home a record-tying 11 Academy Awards.

The strategy of the folks at Screen Gems — the company that took on Dear John after New Line surrendered the property when the company got folded into its parent, Warner Bros. — was to open the movie on Super Bowl weekend, when American males, a big part of Avatar's constituency, were preoccupied with large men running, throwing and writhing in pain. Director Lasse Hallström, who has helmed such dewy fare as Chocolat, Something to Talk About and The Shipping News, gave the remaining femme audience the standard Harlequin cocktail of a handsome soldier (G.I. Joe's Channing Tatum), an idealistic gal (Amanda Seyfried, of Mamma Mia! and Big Love) and a big war (he re-enlists after 9/11). That's why girls ran wild at the wickets, in the biggest Super Bowl weekend opening ever: Dear John just topped the $31.1 million that was amassed two years ago by Miley Cyrus' Hannah Montana concert movie.

The last time Avatar was not No. 1 in North American theaters was the weekend of Dec. 11-13, when the top spot went to the Disney animated feature The Princess and the Frog. That was another fish-out-of-water (or amphibian-in-the-bayou) love story, about a New Orleans girl who hopes to build her dream restaurant but is turned into a frog when she kisses a cursed prince. In Dear John, the hero meets his sweetheart by diving into a lake to retrieve her purse. The Sparks story has even more in common with Cameron's. In both pictures, a U.S. soldier encounters a beguiling outsider with an affinity for green housing: Dear John's female lead works for Habit for Humanity, while Avatar's tries to protect her tribe's Tree of Souls. So for the past two months, the box office has been dominated by movies about strong women with a noble interest in real estate.

Still, don't weep for Avatar. Its 24.6% drop from the previous weekend was its steepest yet, but that's still minuscule compared with most movies. It also has a huge female fan base, as did Titanic, which TBS, in its own canny counterprogramming, is showing opposite the Super Bowl. Avatar is the all-time top grosser (in current dollars), it's still No. 1 worldwide, and it looks to stay strong through this year's Oscar bash (which is four weeks from today), where it will be a prime contender for Best Picture, Best Director and a slew of technical prizes.

Dear John's eminence will be more fleeting, but it certainly escaped the ignominious-flop status of the weekend's other wide release, From Paris with Love. That John Travolta spy-action film earned only a quarter of Dear John's take. Another burly espionage melodrama, the Mel Gibson vehicle Edge of Darkness sank over 60% in its second frame. Meanwhile, the male-oriented Legion and The Book of Eli fell into the bottom half of the top 10, behind the frilly Kristen Bell romantic comedy When in Rome.

Guy movies in trouble; girls on top. It's enough to make industry analysts wonder if there's a place for male stars, and male audiences, at the box office — at least on Super Bowl weekend.

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

1. Dear John, $32.4 million, first weekend
2. Avatar, $23.6 million; $630.1 million, eighth week
3. From Paris with Love, $8.1 million, first weekend
4. Edge of Darkness, $7 million; $29.1 million, second week
5. Tooth Fairy, $6.5 million; $34.3 million, third week
6. When in Rome, $5.5 million; $20.9 million, second week
7. The Book of Eli, $4.8 million; $82.2 million, fourth week
8. Crazy Heart, $3.7 million; $11.2 million, eighth week
9. Legion, $3.4 million; $34.7 million, third week
10. Sherlock Holmes, $2.63 million; $201.6 million, seventh week
11. The Blind Side, $2.6 million; $241.6 million, 12th week