'Friday Night Lights' Shows Its Mojo
"Mojo" (no relation) is the rallying cry of the Permian Panthers, the Odessa, TX high school team that Friday Night Lights follows. The movie displayed that spirit on its opening weekend, tackling $20.3 million at 2,667 theaters

Featuring Billy Bob Thornton and his Sling Blade co-star Lucas Black, the $30 million drama based on H.G. Bissinger's book of the same name scored the third biggest opening ever for a football picture, behind The Waterboy's $39.4 million and Remember the Titans' $20.9 million. Releasing a football picture during the early football season has historically proven fruitful—Remember the Titans, Radio, The Program, Necessary Roughness and Rudy all hit theaters at this time of year. Recently, high school football in particular has been the rage, including Remember the Titans and Varsity Blues.

Distributor Universal Pictures' marketing tapped into a cultural phenomenon—in this case, the fervor of high school football—as it has successfully in the past with movies like The Fast and the Furious and 8 Mile. Friday Night Lights was further pitched as an inspirational drama from its tagline "Hope comes alive on Friday nights" to the highlighting critic's quotes likening the picture to Hoosiers and Remember the Titans.

Instead of putting Thornton's name above the title, the poster and related materials said "From the producer of 8 Mile"—Imagine Entertainment's Brian Grazer being the unnamed power player. Grazer has shown a proclivity lately for these types of underdog, working class-set pictures. In addition to Friday Night Lights and 8 Mile, he also produced the surfing movie Blue Crush and the upcoming boxing picture Cinderella Man.

"This was a passion project for Brian Grazer for over a decade. To have these results, from exit polls to the reviews, is a wonderful thing," Universal head of distribution Nikki Rocco told Box Office Mojo.

Universal's exit polling showed that 54% of the audience was over 25 years old and 56% male. Moviegoers in general liked Friday Night Lights as 91% rated it "excellent" or "very good," and 64% (against a norm of 55%) would definitely recommend it. Story was the top reason cited to see the picture, followed by football, the action and its true story basis.

"I'm feeling great about the exits," Rocco said. "All indications are that it will have great playability."

The Queen Latifah-Jimmy Fallon vehicle Taxi didn't fare too well, collecting $12.0 million at 3,001 locations. Although the 20th Century Fox remake of Luc Besson's 1998 French production of the same name carried a modest budget in the mid-$20 million range. Moviegoers were 56% under 25 and 52% female.

Former Saturday Night Live star Fallon followed in the footsteps of fellow alumni Eddie Murphy (48 HRS.) and Billy Crystal (Running Scared) by choosing a buddy action-comedy for his first leading movie role, but fell far short. Taxi stalled in part because of a premise—bumbling cop who can't drive goes after Brazilian supermodel bank robbers with help of sassy cab driver and her tricked-out taxi—so surreal in its absurdity that it would easily fit in a Hollywood parody. Not to mention Fast and the Furious-meets-Charlie's Angels execution that further distanced it from potential audiences.

Raise Your Voice earned an off-key $4.0 million at 2,521 theaters. Star Hilary Duff suffered her first miss after four hits in a row (Agent Cody Banks, The Lizzie McGuire Movie, Cheaper by the Dozen, A Cinderella Story). Though Duff plays her usual underdog role, the performing arts is often a tough sell in movies and the close proximity to A Cinderella Story didn't help the $15 million New Line release distinguish itself.

Its jaws firmly clenched on the top spot, Shark Tale showed its fins by easing 34% to $31.3 million, bringing the $70 million DreamWorks picture's 10-day haul to $87.4 million. Though most movies these days seem to drop 50% in their second weekend, it's not uncommon for computer animated family fare to hold up well. Among titles that did not benefit from holidays in their sophomore sessions, Ice Age fell 35% (for a similar $87.3 million 10-day tally en route to $176.4 million), Finding Nemo dropped 34% and Monsters, Inc. slipped just 27%.

Falling a modest 41%, Buena Vista's Ladder 49 rang up $13.1 million, lifting its total to $41.0 million after 10 days. The Joaquin Phoenix-John Travolta firefighter drama is working as adult counter-programming to Shark Tale. According to studio exit polling, 68% of its opening weekend audience was over 25.

Overall, the comeback that started with Shark Tale last weekend continued. The total of all movies playing came to $107.8 million, off only 2.1% from last year's record-for-the-frame $110.2 million when Kill Bill Vol. 1 bowed to $22.1 million.

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