'Legend,' 'Chipmunks' Enliven Box Office
A sci-fi horror about the last man on earth had by far the most populated opening since the summer and, along with some hyper rodents, injected life into an otherwise moribund holiday box office. Driven by I Am Legend and Alvin and the Chipmunks, the weekend was the most attended mid-December frame on record. That's a remarkable turnaround after a largely unappealing fall and holiday slate led to weeks of the lowest attendance in a decade or more.

The mega-budget remake of The Omega Man, the 1971 sci-fi drama starring Charlton Heston, and the Richard Matheson novel I Am Legend drew $77.2 million on approximately 6,400 screens at 3,606 theaters, about $3.4 million of which coming from 77 IMAX screens. It was the biggest December weekend gross ever, inching past The Lord of the Rings: The Return the King's $72.9 million (though the latter sold more tickets). I Am Legend also achieved new highs for several sub-genres, including sci-fi horror, vampire and sci-fi remake, eclipsing another Heston redux, Planet of the Apes (though, again, that picture sold more tickets).

With I Am Legend, star Will Smith secured his status as the most bankable actor of the moment. Generally, an actor is an overrated factor in a movie's success or failure, but Smith has consistently headlined smash hits, including non-action ones such as Hitch and The Pursuit of Happyness, to the point that he's a brand that attracts audiences. While the post-apocalyptic premise and deserted New York City setting were appealing, I Am Legend's lynchpin was whether or not potential moviegoers found the lead, presumably the sole human of the movie, affable and relatable enough to sustain their interest for two hours. It was a similar test to Tom Hanks' Cast Away and Smith passed commercially, scoring a career best opening, although Independence Day and Men in Black had comparable first weekends adjusted for ticket price inflation.

If there's a chink in I Am Legend's armor, it may be word-of-mouth. The result from moviegoer pollster CinemaScore was a "B," a low grade by the tracker's standards indicating a mixed reception. Alvin and the Chipmunks, on the other hand, rated an "A."

While I Am Legend nabbed the headlines, Alvin and the Chipmunks had an equally impressive start, racking up $44.3 million on around 4,700 screens at 3,475 theaters. The nearly $60 million critter comedy nearly quadrupled the audience for the entire run of The Chipmunk Adventure in 1987, quadrupled Charlotte's Web's opening from the same weekend last year and trailed only Scooby-Doo among cartoon adaptations. And it achieved those heights in the middle of December, when initial numbers for family movies tend to be muted as audiences are spread throughout the holidays.

With the advent of two big openers, the mostly pathetic holdovers crashed. The Golden Compass went south fast, falling 66 percent to $8.8 million. The costly fantasy has rung up a modest $40.8 million in ten days. No Country for Old Men, though, had the best hold among wide releases again, down 31 percent. Still, the crime thriller's $2.8 million weekend wasn't particularly strong, and its total grew to a relatively solid $33.6 million in 38 days. The second smallest drop was claimed by Enchanted, which waned 48 percent to $5.5 million for $91.8 million in 26 days.

Among limited releases, Juno showed the most promise with $1.4 million in its second weekend at 40 sites and has been slightly more potent than Little Miss Sunshine at the same point. Distributor Fox Searchlight will aggressively expand the comedy to over 200 theaters on Friday, then to over 850 on Christmas day, followed by a jump to over 1,500 theaters on Jan. 4. Atonement also fared well in its second weekend, though it wasn't as robust as Juno. The period romance garnered $1.8 million at 117 venues.

Among other openings, Christmas-themed The Perfect Holiday flopped with $2.3 million at 1,307 sites, drama The Kite Runner posted a passable $471,713 at 35 locations and is scheduled for a 350-theater roll-out on Friday, and director Francis Ford Coppola's first picture in ten years, Youth Without Youth, grossed a measly $28,550 at six venues.

RELATED ARTICLES• Review: 'I Am Legend'• 12/18/06 - 'Pursuit' Overtakes 'Eragon,' 'Web' (Same Weekend, 2006)• 12/19/05 - 'King Kong' Mighty But No Monster (Same Weekend, 2005)

• 12/20/04 - 'Lemony' Licks Competition(Same Weekend, 2004)


Weekend Box Office Results

• Sci-Fi Horror Movies

• Sci-Fi Remakes

• Talking Animal Movies

• Live-Action Cartoon Adaptations