“Lego Movie” posts biggest opening of the year

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Los Angeles  — All the pieces connected for “The Lego Movie” at the box office this weekend, as the 3-D animated release far exceeded industry expectations to post the biggest opening of the year.

The family film premiered with a robust $69.1 million, according to an estimate from distributor Warner Bros., after pre-release audience surveys heading into the weekend indicated the picture would open at about $50 million.

Meanwhile, George Clooney’s latest directorial effort, the World War II tale “The Monuments Men,” had a respectable premiere weekend of $22.7 million. The only other film debuting nationwide this weekend, the teen fantasy “Vampire Academy,” showed no signs of life, with a dismal $4.1 opening.

Before “The Lego Movie” hit theaters, it was clear that the film was resonating with critics: The picture had a 95 percent “fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes. But moviegoers loved it too, assigning it an average grade of A, according to market-research firm CinemaScore.

With word-of-mouth, the movie could end up grossing close to $200 million _ especially given that the next family film, Disney’s “Mr. Peabody & Sherman,” isn’t due until March. “The Lego Movie” opening surpasses “Ride Along,” which broke January box office records by taking in about $48 million on the four-day Martin Luther King Day weekend last month.

The “Lego” success is a major win for Warner Bros., which isn’t a huge player in animation. The studio said it financed the film for about $60 million, a sum considered cheap for a genre in which movies cost upward of $150 million to produce. Warner’s hasn’t released an animated film since 2011, when its “Happy Feet Two” ended with a lackluster $64 million domestically.

The strong performance of “The Lego Movie” all but guaranteed a sequel _ one that could even prove competitive enough to open in the summer or holiday season, said Dan Fellman, the studio’s president of domestic distribution.

“Animation is a big part of our business, and as a market leader in the industry we should be in that footprint,” he said. “The Lego brand is cherished all over the world, and you’ll see a lot more from us down the road.”

Written and directed by Phil Lord and Chris Miller _ creators of the “Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs” franchise _ “The Lego Movie” was made with cooperation from the world’s second-biggest toy company. The film follows an upbeat construction worker (voiced by Chris Pratt) who is whisked away from his humdrum job by a nonconformist (Elizabeth Banks) for an adventure.

Filmgoers over age 18 constituted 59 percent of the audience, indicating that “The Lego Movie” successfully drew adults as well as children. About 55 percent of the audience was male. About 35 percent of those who saw the film were willing to shell out a few extra bucks to watch it in 3-D.

Meanwhile, an older crowd settled in for “The Monuments Men.” About 75 percent of the audience for the Sony Pictures and 20th Century Fox co-production was older than 35, about equally split between men and women. The film earned a B-plus CinemaScore and will need to generate strong buzz if it is to make up for its $70 million budget.

The film’s opening is the best by far for Clooney, who co-wrote the script with producing partner Grant Heslov. Of the four films the actor directed previously, the biggest hit was the 2011 political thriller “The Ides of March,” which launched with $10.5 million and went on to gross $41 million.

“Adults have a lot of love for George in terms of what he represents and the films he has chosen to embrace,” said Rory Bruer, Sony’s distribution president. “He has the whole package going for him.”

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