'King' dethroned as fantasy makes waves

Sony's "Big Fish"made a $14.5 million splash at the box office, as the Tim Burton fantasy finished No. 1 in its first weekend in wide release.

New Line's "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King" was a close runner-up with $14.1 million, after ruling the B.O in its first three weekends. And 20th Century Fox's family laffer "Cheaper by the Dozen" took the bronze medal, as a $12 million haul over its third session pushed cume to $101.4 million.

Some industryites suggested Sony penciled in an overly optimistic estimate for Sunday grosses on "Fish," so today's official data bears watching.

Miramax's urban-skewing "My Baby's Daddy," one of two wide openers, rung up $7.8 million in sixth place. Alcon/Warner Bros.' Mandy Moore starrer "Chasing Liberty" -- the other big new pic -- bowed with $6 million in seventh despite having more playdates than "Daddy."

Industrywide, the weekend repped a 3% downtick from the same frame a year ago with $108 million in total estimated grosses, according to B.O. tracker Nielsen EDI. Year-to-date, 2004 is off 4% since the start of the new B.O. year on Jan. 5.

With the kudos season in high gear, studios are seeking to exploit positive publicity from crix and guild nods as they platform specialty releases in advance of the Academy Awards.

Among notable expansions, Newmarket's serial killer drama "Monster" -- for which star Charlize Theron has been drawing kudos -- added 68 theaters for a total 82 and grossed $865,159, or an impressive $10,550 per venue with a $1.4 million cume. "Monster" adds another 125 location Friday.

Among new entries, Rialto re-released 1965 drama "The Battle of Algiers" with six runs in four cities and grossed an estimated $63,307. That gave "Algiers" a nifty $10,551 per site. Also, Lantern Lane unspooled docu "Aileen: The Life and Death of a Serial Killer" in three locations in Gotham and L.A. to gross $19,452, or $6,284 per site.

Elsewhere in the specialty market, Disney's Brit laffer "Calendar Girls" added 212 playdates for a total 957 and grossed $3.6 million, or $3,774 per engagement with a $12.3 million cume.

DreamWorks' lit adaptation "House of Sand and Fog" expanded by 114 playdates for a total 596 and grossed $1.4 million, or $2,384 per engagement with a $7.5 million cume.

Lions Gates "The Cooler" held in 77 locations and grossed $293,000, or $3,805 per site with a $2.3 million cume, as the casino drama prepares to expand to 420 theaters Friday.

Distrib's "Girl with a Pearl Earring"added 17 playdates for a total 41 and grossed $308,000, a notable $7,512 per engagement. Scarlett Johansson-Colin Firthstarrer totes a $1.3 cume as it prepares for expansions on Friday and Jan. 30.

Sony Pictures Classics held in seven locations with its Errol Morris docu "The Fog of War" and grossed $63,868, or a solid $9,124 per site with a $377,237 cume.

Distrib's ballet drama "The Company" maintained 11 playdates and grossed $67,389, a sturdy $6,126 per engagement with a $42,106 cume.

Focus Features' gritty drama "21 Grams" added 82 theaters for a total 371 and grossed $1.3 million, an acceptable $3,460 per venue with a $9.1 million cume.

And Fox Searchlight's immigrant drama "In America" slid 22 theaters and grossed $935,000 from 305 venues, or $3,066 per run with a $6.7 million cume.

'Pet' comes to play

Looking to next weekend -- the lucrative Martin Luther King holiday frame -- the wide releases are Mouse toon tuner "Disney's Teacher's Pet," Universal laffer "Along Came Polly" and Warner Bros.' motorcycle actioner "Torque." Also, Miramax is skedded to add 500-plus playdates to its Civil War drama "Cold Mountain," whose $7.9 million haul this weekend pushed three-week cume to $55.4 million.

"Fish" will try to stay afloat amid the busy market currents, with Sony execs claiming satisfaction with pic's progress so far in its platformed rollout.

"This is a movie we all love at the studio," Sony distribution prexy Rory Bruer said. "But it felt like it needed special handling."

Auds for fantasy's first frame in wide release were evenly divided between males and femmes, with 48% of patrons age 30 or older.

"Baby's Daddy" played best with African-American auds.

"We're happy," Miramax chief operating officer Rick Sands said. "The picture cost $12 million, and it was not expensive to market. So it's going to be really profitable for us."

"Chasing Liberty" -- one of two 2004 titles whose plot revolves around the daughter of a fictional U.S. president -- was produced by Alcon Entertainment, with Warners acting solely as distrib. Pic's bow was in line with projections from pre-release tracking data, execs said.

"We were hoping that it would do more, " Warners execVP distribution Jeff Goldstein acknowledged.

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