Dear John bumps Avatar with $32.4M debut

A sci-fi love story has given way to an earthbound romance at the box office, livening up typically slow times at theatres over Super Bowl weekend.

Channing Tatum

Channing Tatum

LOS ANGELES — A sci-fi love story has given way to an earthbound romance at the box office, livening up typically slow times at theatres over Super Bowl weekend.

Released by Sony’s Screen Gems banner, Dear John debuted as the No. 1 movie with $32.4 million, knocking off Avatar after seven weekends in first place, according to studio estimates Sunday.

“It is very cool to know that it was our movie that audiences just totally embraced and made No. 1 for the weekend,” said Rory Bruer, head of distribution at Sony. As for runaway blockbuster Avatar, he quipped, “I think they’re going to be fine in the long run.”

Avatar slipped to No. 2 with $23.6 million, raising its domestic total to $630.1 million. Directed by James Cameron, 20th Century Fox’s Avatar surpassed his own Titanic, which had held the domestic revenue record at $600.8 million.

With a record $2.2 billion worldwide, Avatar also has soared past the $1.8 billion Titanic took in globally.

Factoring in today’s higher admission prices, however, Avatar has sold fewer tickets than Titanic.

Avatar had been No. 1 domestically longer than any movie since 1997’s Titanic, which held on at first place for 15 weekends. The studio was unconcerned that Avatar finally fell out of the top spot.

“It had to happen sometime,” said 20th Century Fox distribution executive Bert Livingston. “There’s nothing that could disappoint me with this movie.”

By the eighth weekend, most Hollywood movies have long since dropped out of the top 10 rankings.

Avatar still is going strong after eight weeks, with the added lustre of a monthlong buildup to the Academy Awards on March 7. Following the example of Oscar champ Titanic, Avatar tied for the lead at the Academy Awards with nine nominations and is a front-runner to win best picture.

Fox executives would not speculate what number Avatar eventually might hit at the box office.

“Who knows what that is? It just keeps on going,” Livingston said.

The weekend’s other new wide release, Lionsgate’s spy story From Paris With Love, opened at No. 3 with $8.1 million. The movie stars John Travolta and Jonathan Rhys Meyers as CIA men trying to crack a terrorist plot.

Fox Searchlight’s acclaimed country-music tale Crazy Heart expanded from narrow release and broke into the top 10, coming in at No. 8 with $3.7 million. Jeff Bridges and Maggie Gyllenhaal have acting Oscar nominations for the film, which follows a boozy country star trying to turn his life around.

While Avatar features a human-alien romance light-years away, Dear John centres on a long-distance love story between a soldier (Channing Tatum) and his sweetheart back home.

Dear John had a record opening for Super Bowl weekend, topping the $31.1 million debut for Hannah Montana&Miley Cyrus: Best of Both Worlds Concert in 2008.

The movie was based on the novel by Nicholas Sparks, whose Hollywood adaptations such as The Notebook and A Walk to Remember have been steady draws for women. Female crowds made up 84 per cent of the audience for Dear John, according to Sony.

Sparks “creates these stories that really pull at your heartstrings, and certainly that may be first and foremost for women rather than men, though I think a few of us have hearts, too,” Bruer said.

Business on Sunday was predictably slow as football fans watched the Super Bowl instead of going to the movies. But Dear John already exceeded industry expectations with $26.2 million on Friday and Saturday.

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