LOS ANGELES (AP) – Hollywood made way for a third straight week of box-office dominance by “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” as no new movies opened in wide release for the New Year’s weekend.

The top 10 movies looked a lot like last week’s, led by “Rings” with $30.8 million and Steve Martin’s remake of “Cheaper by the Dozen” in No. 2 with $21.9 million, according to studio estimates released Sunday.

It’s typical for the New Year’s holiday weekend to be slow as far as new releases are concerned, said Paul Dergarabedian, president of box-office tracker Exhibitor Relations Co. Most studios release their big films in time for Christmas.

This coming weekend will bring fresher offerings, such as “Chasing Liberty,” “My Baby’s Daddy” and a wider release for “Big Fish.”

“The Return of the King” has collected $292 million in North America since it debuted Dec. 17. “This movie is like a freight train with no brakes,” said Dergarabedian, who predicted the film eventually would cross the $1 billion mark worldwide.

“Calendar Girls” collected $4.6 million to rank ninth, and “Bad Santa” slipped one place to No. 10 with $3 million.

“Calendar Girls,” a comedy about older British women who decide to make a tasteful nude calendar, was playing in only 745 locations. The audience for the film was mostly women, predominantly in their 40s and 50s, who have been motivated by word-of-mouth, said Disney head of distribution Chuck Viane.

Other films that performed strongly in limited release included “House of Sand and Fog,” with Ben Kingsley and Jennifer Connelly as two people feuding over ownership of a home. It collected $1.8 million in about 442 theaters, for a solid per-screen average of $4,072.

Director Tim Burton’s “Big Fish,” meanwhile, has had an outstanding limited run and is heading into its first nationwide distribution next week in about 2,500 theaters. The movie, about a tall-tale spinner whose fantastic stories annoy his grown son, garnered $2.5 million in about 125 locations, averaging $20,000 per screen.

“That’s a huge number that means the movie is really filling those theaters, and that portends well for its first wide expansion,” Dergarabedian said.

The overall box office was up about 14 percent compared to the same weekend last year, when “The Two Towers,” the second installment of “The Lord of the Rings,” was No. 1, followed by “Catch Me If You Can” and “Two Weeks Notice.”

Total ticket sales came in slightly lower for 2003 than the year before, the first downturn since 1991. “It’s a little early to start celebrating,” Dergarabedian said of the new year’s first week. “But you want to head into ’04 with momentum.”

Estimated ticket sales for Friday through Sunday at North American theaters, according to Exhibitor Relations Co. Inc. Final figures will be released Monday.

1. “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King,” $30.8 million.

2. “Cheaper By the Dozen,” $21.9 million.

3. “Something’s Gotta Give,” $12.5 million.

4. “Cold Mountain,” $11.7 million.

5. “Paycheck,” $10 million.

6. “Mona Lisa Smile,” $8.7 million.

7. “Peter Pan,” $8.5 million.

8. “The Last Samurai,” $7.5 million.

9. “Calendar Girls,” $4.6 million.

10. “Bad Santa,” $3 million.

AP-ES-01-04-04 1519EST



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