'Lemony' Licks Competition

by Brandon Gray
December 20, 2004

Misery loved company over the weekend as Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events drew $30.1 million on over 4,400 screens at 3,620 theaters.

Based on the series of children's books by Daniel Handler, Paramount's $140 million production (partnered with DreamWorks and Nickelodeon) was about a third the size of the average Harry Potter out of the gate, but it was the biggest opening ever for a kids' picture in December, when softer starts and longer legs are the order of the day.

Star Jim Carrey consistently delivers blockbusters when the genre is straight comedy or family fare, and he previously had a massive success with another dark children's tale How the Grinch Stole Christmas. Lemony Snicket marks his seventh release to open at $30 million or more.

The audience was evenly split between the sexes and also between families and adults (sans kids) and teens, according to Paramount's exit polling. The studio did not release specifics on moviegoers' reaction, but said it was 10 points above the norm in each quadrant. "It was through the roof with kids under 12," Paramount's head of distribution, Wayne Lewellen, told Box Office Mojo.

"The opening is in line with what we were hoping for, though I thought it could go as high as $32 million," said Lewellen. He credited the popularity of the books, the casting of Carrey and Meryl Streep and marketing.

Advertising adopted the tongue-in-cheek negativity of the franchise—taglines included "Christmas cheer takes a holiday" and "Don't say we didn't warn you." The ads prominently featured music from another dark fairy tale, Edward Scissorhands, which also opened at around Christmas 14 years ago.

Director James L. Brooks' Spanglish was soft-spoken with $8.8 million at 2,438 venues, below such similarly-appealing Sony stable mates as Stepmom, Mona Lisa Smile and Mr. Brooks' As Good as It Gets. The audience skewed female at 55% and under age 35 at 56%, Sony's exit polling indicated. Moviegoers generally liked what they saw, as 87% rated the picture either "excellent" or "very good" and 72% would give it a "definite recommend."

As fellow comedian Carrey has done in the past, star Adam Sandler strayed from his usual slapstick with the nearly $80 million domestic comedy and saw box office far below his norm—the average opening for a standard Sandler vehicle is $26 million since 1995. His last stretch, the platform-released Punch-Drunk Love, made $17.8 million in its entire run. His next picture, the remake The Longest Yard, puts him back on his commercial turf.

The trailers for Spanglish were pleasant and had some laughs courtesy of scene-stealer Cloris Leachman, but they lacked focus and made the picture look better suited to the small screen than a must see in theaters. Mr. Brooks has had unusual blockbuster success in the past with Terms of Endearment and As Good as It Gets, but those movies had stronger angles and better-tailored star power to get them off the ground.

The Flight of the Phoenix was grounded with $5.0 million at 2,604 theaters. Fox's $45 million remake of the 1965 James Stewart picture of the same name played mostly male (62% of moviegoers) and over 25 (61%), according to studio exit polling. The premise of a ragtag group struggling to rebuild their downed plane in a desert was inherently limiting for this action adventure, and the picture lacked the exoticness, emotion and star power of Fox's own Cast Away from Christmas 2000.

Weak as the openings for Spanglish and The Flight of the Phoenix seem, the movies may hold up well as the pre-Christmas weekend is often muted. In 1999, when dates were aligned with this year (Dec. 17-19), the new movies were modest, but saw more business through the holidays. Stuart Little bowed to $15.0 million yet ultimately made $140 million, Bicentennial Man started with $8.2 million and ended with $58.2 million, and Anna and the King opened to $5.2 million and closed with $39.3 million.

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WEEKLY: 'Ralph Breaks the Internet' Tops the Week with $31.1m
DAILY: Thursday 12/6, (44 tracked)
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