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''Compass'' tops box office

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So they’re not Lord of the Rings numbers, but The Golden Compass‘ modest $26 million bow should be enough for those New Line studio executives to keep their day jobs. Whether or not it will encourage New Line to make the follow-up chapter The Subtle Knife, based on the second of Philip Pullman’s popular His Dark Materials book series, probably depends more on how the film performs overseas. With expectations for the movie’s debut closer to the $30 million range (and initial studio hopes likely much higher), it’s going to take a robust performance during the holiday vacation to make up its $205 million negative cost. Over the next couple of weeks, we’ll see how many families turn out for the fantasy flick starring a young girl and talking polar bears.

Unfortunately for Hollywood, The Golden Compass did little to buoy the overall box office. Even its $26 million bow couldn’t surpass last year’s numbers at this time. The box office’s top 12 was down close to 10% compared to last weekend at this time when Disney unleashed Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto and Sony opened up the Cameron Diaz-Kate Winslet romantic comedy The Holiday.

No other new wide releases opened this busy pre-holiday weekend. Instead, two Oscar hopefuls opened strong in limited distribution. Focus Features’ Atonement scored $817,000 in 32 theaters for an impressive per-screen average of $25,531. The Keira Knightley-James McAvoy period piece has already earned $31 million overseas. Meanwhile, Fox Searchlight’s quirky dramedy Juno, from director Jason Reitman, opened in seven theaters to $420,000, for a strong per-theater average of $60,000.

John Cusack’s Iraq drama Grace is Gone had a much more difficult time. The Weinstein Company flick bowed on four screens to $14,000 for an anemic $3,500 average, all but killing award recognition for the Sundance-acquired indie.

Of the holdovers, Disney’s Enchanted still seems to be reeling in all those with princess on the brain. The movie dropped 35% its third weekend, bringing its total gross to $84 million. Screen Gems’ This Christmas continues its strong run: The modestly budgeted family comedy from writer-director Preston A. Whitmore grossed another $5 million putting its total gross at $42.7 million. The other notable holdover is Miramax’s Coen Brothers release No Country for Old Men. The Josh Brolin-Javier Bardem neo-Western — which has Oscar written all over it — earned $4.2 million in over 1300 theaters, bringing it’s total to almost $29 million.

In all likelihood, this weekend will marks the last real lull in the box office for the rest of the year. The coming weeks will see an onslaught of prestige films (Kite Runner, Sweeney Todd) mixed with good ol’ popcorn entertainment (I Am Legend, National Treasure: Book of Secrets) Be sure to tune into EW.com for all the insight. Happy Hanukkah.

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