Oscar winners Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe overcame a swarm of bees to take top spot at the weekend North American movie box office with American Gangster, a true-life crime saga that set a number of records.
According to studio estimates issued on Sunday, American Gangster sold $46.3 million worth of tickets during its first three days, while Jerry Seinfeld's heavily marketed animated Bee Movie opened at No. 2 with $39.1 million. Both figures surpassed the expectations of the films' respective distributors.
Last weekend's champion, the horror movie, Saw IV, fell to a distant No. 3 with $11.0 million, taking its 10-day haul to $51.1 million. The top-10 contained one other new release, the John Cusack drama Martian Child, which opened at No. 7 with just $3.65 million.
The one-two punch of American Gangster and Bee Movie helped the box office end a six-week losing streak. Total sales were up about 11 percent over the year-ago weekend to $143 million, according to tracking firm Media By Numbers. Year-to-date, revenues are up about 6 percent to $8 billion, thanks mostly to higher ticket prices since the number of moviegoers is up just 1 percent, the firm said.
American Gangster, a $100 million project that took producer Brian Grazer seven years and three directors to bring to the big screen, stars Washington as a Harlem drug lord and Crowe as the honest cop who brings him down. Praised by critics, it was directed by Sir Ridley Scott, who succeeded original choice Antoine Fuqua and then Terry George.
The film's distributor, General Electric Co.'s Universal Pictures, had hoped it would open above $40 million, but there were some risks, including its lengthy 157-minute running time, restrictive R rating meaning children under 17 must be accompanied by an adult and gritty subject matter.
In fact, Universal said it was the second highest-grossing R-rated film over 150 minutes, coming in about $500,000 behind Brad Pitt's 2004 movie Troy.
Among the records it set were personal bests for Washington and Crowe, surpassing their previous respective efforts in Inside Man ($29 million) and Gladiator ($35 million).
Additionally, Universal said it was the highest-grossing gangster film, outgunning Sin City ($29 million) and The Departed ($27 million).
HONEY MAKES MONEY
Bee Movie marks Seinfeld's first major project since he ended his groundbreaking eponymous sitcom in 1998. It took flight after Seinfeld uttered the pun-laden title during a dinner with Steven Spielberg. The next day, Spielberg's partner Jeffery Katzenberg, the CEO of DreamWorks Animation SKG Inc., commanded him to turn the title into a movie.
Seinfeld produced and co-wrote the film, and voices the lead character, a curious bee who befriends a florist and then sues the human race for stealing the bees' honey. Critics were sharply divided.
Its weekend tally was on par with DreamWorks' 2006 offering Over the Hedge, which started with $38.5 million and finished with $155 million. But it fell short of J.P. Morgan analyst Barton Crockett's prediction of $47 million to $50 million.
Bee Movie cost about $150 million to make, and a similar amount has been budgeted for its worldwide theatrical marketing campaign. DreamWorks Animation films are released by Viacom Inc.'s Paramount Pictures.
Saw IV was released by Lionsgate, a unit of Lions Gate Entertainment Corp. Martian Child was released by New Line Cinema, a unit of Time Warner Inc.
Rounding out the top five, Walt Disney Co.'s Steve Carell comedy Dan in Real Life fell two places to No. 4 with $8.1 million, taking its 10-day total to $23 million.
Sony Corp.'s vampire movie 30 Days of Night fell two to No. 5 with $4 million. After three weeks, the former chart-topper has earned $34 million.