Box Office Guru Wrapup: Avatar Finally Toppled by Dear John

The "chick flick" steals the #1 spot from James Cameron's reigning 7-week champ

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This weekend in a surprise upset victory, the new romance saga Dear John booted seven-time champ Avatar from the number one spot at the North American box office powered by young women chasing after Hollywood hunk Channing Tatum. John Travolta (the Tatum of the late 1970s) saw his new action thriller From Paris With Love bomb settling for third place. Overall ticket sales slipped from last weekend thanks in part to the Super Bowl distracting millions of Americans.

The young ladies couldn't resist a man in uniform as the soldier story Dear John surged past industry expectations to capture the top slot at the multiplexes with an estimated $32.4M opening weekend. Invading 2,969 theaters, the PG-13 drama starring Tatum and Amanda Seyfried averaged a muscular $10,913 per site. Eager to take credit for the remarkable performance were Relativity Media which produced and Sony's Screen Gems unit which handled marketing and distribution duties. It was the biggest opening ever over Super Bowl weekend beating the $31.1M of the Hannah Montana/Miley Cyrus 3D concert film from two years ago which played in just 683 locations but charged $15 per ticket for a scorching $45,561 average.

With Hollywood too busy in recent weeks rolling out underperforming films from over-50 actors like Travolta, Mel Gibson, and Harrison Ford, neglected teen girls found in Dear John the exact type of entertainment they were looking to pay top dollar for. According to Sony's research, a whopping 84% of the audience was female while 64% was under 21. The $25M film opened better than From Paris With Love, Edge of Darkness, and Extraordinary Measures - combined. John even powered ahead of the $27.8M debut of the star-studded book-based date flick He's Just Not That Into You from exactly one year ago.

Reviews were mostly bad so the studio instead took its case directly to the customers scheduling many word-of-mouth screenings to build buzz and promoting the film with the U.S. Army and other military organizations. The lead actors were also sent to strategic locations for public appearances where, conveniently, teenage girls went into screaming frenzies. Dear John benefited from a release date just a week before Valentine's Day and had a built-in audience of readers of the Nicholas Sparks book. 2004's The Notebook, also based on one of his novels, turned into a major sleeper hit that summer. His next book-turned-movie The Last Song stars Miley Cyrus and hits cinemas at the end of next month over Easter weekend opposite the 3D actioner Clash of the Titans.

After its seven-week reign at the top of the box office, James Cameron's Oscar-nominated juggernaut Avatar slipped to second place but still generated a healthy $23.6M, according to estimates. Off 25%, the Fox smash boosted its domestic haul to $630.1M. It was only the second time in its entire run that the weekend decline was more than 20%, however much of that was due to the expected hit Sunday will take because of the Super Bowl. Compared to last weekend, Friday slipped by 19%, Saturday dipped by 18%, and Sunday is projected to fall by 39%. For this weekend, the studio is forecasting a rather low 48% drop from Saturday to Sunday. Most distributors are factoring in declines of over 60% because of the Big Game.

Overseas, Avatar grossed an estimated $75M this weekend, down 21%, lifting the record international tally to $1.58 billion and the global tally to an eye-popping $2.21 billion. Reaching $2.5 billion should be easy for the 3D extravaganza.

Action fans showed little interest in John Travolta's bald head and goatee as the actor's latest offering From Paris With Love bowed in third place with an estimated $8.1M from 2,722 theaters for a weak $2,983 average. The R-rated espionage thriller was directed by Pierre Morel whose hit thriller Taken was the big surprise winner over last year's Super Bowl frame. This time, moviegoers were not excited and mostly avoided the French-set action flick. Reviews were negative for the Lionsgate release.

Audiences abandoned Mel Gibson as his revenge thriller Edge of Darkness tumbled by 59% in its second weekend to an estimated $7M. After ten days, the Warner Bros. release has collected $29.1M and is headed for a finish of roughly $45M. On the other hand, Dwayne Johnson's kidpic The Tooth Fairy posted another good hold in its third round dropping 35% to an estimated $6.5M. Fox's 17-day total stands at $34.3M.

Falling a steep 55% in its second weekend was the romantic comedy When in Rome which grossed an estimated $5.5M putting the ten-day sum at a decent $20.9M for Buena Vista. Following in seventh was The Book of Eli with an estimated $4.8M, off 46%, giving Warner Bros. $82.2M to date.

Fox Searchlight expanded its Oscar contender Crazy Heart from 239 to 819 theaters and saw ticket sales climb 58% to an estimated $3.7M for an eighth place finish. Averaging $4,457 per site, the Jeff Bridges starrer scored three nods for Best Actor, Best Supporting Actress, and Best Song. The film has already earned many wins in the actor and song categories of other awards groups. Cume is now $11.2M.

Sony's supernatural thriller Legion tumbled 53% to an estimated $3.4M lifting its cume to $34.7M. Sherlock Holmes rounded out the top ten and broke the double century mark in the process. The Robert Downey Jr. pic fell 42% to an estimated $2.6M raising the total to $201.6M. It became the record tenth release of 2009 to jump the $200M mark. With $242.5M from overseas markets, the global tally for the Guy Ritchie-directed franchise-starter now stands at an impressive $444M.

Oscar nominees for Best Picture that are still in theaters benefited from the higher profile. Witnessing smaller declines than before were The Blind Side which dipped 14% to an estimated $2.6M and Up in the Air which slipped 16% to an estimated $2.4M. Totals are $241.6M and $76.7M, respectively. Lionsgate's Precious expanded from 222 to 669 locations but still struggled with audiences. Despite more than doubling its weekend gross, the urban drama took in an estimated $435,000 averaging only $650 per site. Total is $46M.

The top ten films grossed an estimated $97.6M which was up 2% from last year's Super Bowl frame when Taken opened in the top spot with $24.7M; and up 3% from 2008's football weekend when Hannah Montana & Miley Cyrus: Best of Both Worlds 3D debuted at number one with $31.1M. The game fell one week earlier on the calendar during those two years.

Author: Gitseh Pandya, Box Office Guru!

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