THE STUFF OF LEGEND

Will Smith could well have invoked the famous line of Mohammed Ali, the man he once played in a movie: "I am the greatest." For Smith, who performs a veritable one-man show in the movie I Am Legend, set a box-office record for December over the weekend as the movie debuted with an estimated $77.4 million. The previous record had been set by The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, which took in $72.6 million in its 2003 debut. (Warner Bros. observed that the results also represented the biggest success it has ever had with a "non-franchise" film.) Box office gurus, who were way off in their predictions on Friday, could only marvel at the Legend-ary results: $59.2 million on Friday and Saturday. And Warner Bros.' estimate that it took in an additional $18.2 million on Sunday could very well prove to be too conservative. Meanwhile, 20th Century Fox's Alvin and the Chipmunks also surpassed expectations, taking in about $44.7 million. The family film clobbered New Line's The Golden Compass, which wound up with just $9 million after opening last week with a disappointing $25.8 million, a fraction of its cost of more than $200 million to produce and market. The success of Legend and Alvin pushed box-office receipts 36 percent above those for a year ago.

The top ten films for the weekend, according to studio estimates compiled by Media by Numbers:

1. I Am Legend, $76.5 million; 2. Alvin and the Chipmunks, $45 million; 3. The Golden Compass, $9 million; 4. Enchanted, $6 million; 5. No Country for Old Men, $3 million; 6. The Perfect Holiday, $2.97 million; 7. Fred Claus, $2.3 million; 8. This Christmas, $2.3 million; 9. Atonement, $1.85 million; 10. August Rush, $1.8 million.

KITE FLIES AT U.S. BOX OFFICE

The independent film market had a new hit of its own over the weekend. In limited release, the Paramount Classics/DreamWorks The Kite Runner opened with $450,970 in 35 theaters or an average of $12,885 per theater. The film, set in Afghanistan and California between 1979 and 2000, had received mixed reviews on Friday. Lou Lumenick in the New York Post observed: "There was no shortage of sobbing at the screening I attended, but in the final analysis this is more an entertaining than a profound film that somehow seems rushed and overlong at the same time." But Roger Ebert in the Chicago Sun-Times awarded it four stars, writing, "How long has it been since you saw a movie that succeeds as pure story? That doesn't depend on stars, effects or genres, but simply fascinates you with how it will turn out? Marc Forster's The Kite Runner, based on a much-loved novel, is a movie like that." Two other indie films also performed solidly, due in large part to awareness brought about by Golden Globes nominations last week. Universal Pictures/Focus Features' Atonement, which nabbed seven nominations, earned $1.9 million or an average of $15,835 per theater. Miramax's No Country for Old Men, which counted four Globe nominations, took in $3 million

GOLDEN COMPASS RIGHT ON MARK OVERSEAS

Overseas, The Golden Compass continued to lead the way, taking in north of $29 million and bringing its overseas total to $90 million after two weekends -- more than twice what it has earned domestically. I Am Legend debuted in second place with $20 million, despite playing in only seven markets. (It opened in first place in every country.) Legend tied with the animated Bee Movie, which played in 44 countries.

CANADIANS INCREASE INCENTIVE TO U.S. FILMMAKERS

With the Canadian dollar now worth slightly more than the American dollar, the Ontario government is planning to raise the tax credit to foreign filmmakers by 7 percent. The increase is expected to offset the impact of the growing strength of the Canadian currency that has resulted in U.S. filmmakers no longer being able to take advantage of savings from the previous exchange rate. The tax credit would principally affect film and TV production in Toronto, which boasts Canada's most extensive film facilities and production personnel.

Brian B. at Movieweb
Brian B.