HOLLYWOOD " A stealth marketing campaign and surprisingly positive reviews propelled Paramount Pictures' monster movie "Cloverfield" to box-office records with a holiday-weekend opening headed for nearly $50 million over four days.
"Cloverfield" " whose title and plot were kept under wraps until recently as the studio fueled a viral online promotion " beat predictions by bringing in more older viewers than expected given the genre and cast of young unknowns.
The audience was 60 percent male and 45 percent over age 25, Paramount said Sunday, and the Web site Rottentomatoes.com said the PG-13 offering got the thumbs-up from 76 percent of critics.
"The marketing campaign got people talking about the movie, but the reviews helped cement their interest in seeing it," said Rob Moore, the studio's vice chairman.
Twentieth Century Fox's "27 Dresses," a romantic comedy starring Katherine Heigl, matched industry expectations and came in a distant No. 2 with U.S. and Canadian grosses on track for $27 million through Monday.
Warner Bros.' comedy-drama "The Bucket List," last weekend's box-office leader starring Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman, held up well in its second weekend of wide release, heading for a No. 3 finish with a four-day gross of about $18 million.
"Cloverfield," about a mysterious monster attacking New York City, was made for $25 million. The film, produced by J.J. Abrams, averaged an industry leading $12,000 per theater and racked up $41 million in its first three days. By Sunday, it set records for January and King holiday openings (unadjusted for ticket price inflation).
The 1999 "Star Wars" reissue had owned the January mark with a three-day opening of $35.9 million, while the King record was held by director Ridley Scott's war drama "Black Hawk Down," which reeled in $33.6 million over four days in 2002.
"Cloverfield" is the first movie from Abrams' Bad Robot Productions in a deal with Paramount, and a pet project of studio Chief Executive Brad Grey. Viacom Inc.'s Paramount is coming off a year in which it led distributors in market share, although most of its 2007 hits came from its DreamWorks Studios division.
"Cloverfield" was heavily marketed in a campaign that cost "significantly more" than the production itself, Moore said.
Like the 1999 horror movie "The Blair Witch Project," a low-budget smash whose online marketing campaign was legendary, "Cloverfield" was shot in shaky hand-held style to create a realistic look -- a gimmick some moviegoers can't stomach.
The AMC theater chain posted a unusual warning outside each of its venues showing the movie: "Due to the filming method used for 'Cloverfield,' guests viewing this film may experience side effects associated with motion sickness similar to riding a roller coaster."
The question for "Cloverfield," after such a highly anticipated opening, is whether it can sustain its momentum in the coming weeks.
Although critics were bullish, Paramount acknowledged that audience survey responses were weaker than expected in light of the turnout. But they noted that "Blair Witch," a grim tale that also divided viewers, ultimately grossed five times its opening total -- a high box-office "multiple."
"Cloverfield" will be profitable even if it does the typical industry multiple of three and goes on to gross $120 million, but if it were to hang as tough as "Blair Witch" it would become a $200 million blockbuster domestically.
"The movie had such a unique profile and high interest level going in," Moore said. "The question now is, 'Do other people become aware of it because of all the attention and add another layer of business?"'
The two other major new releases vied for female moviegoers.
"27 Dresses" drew an audience that was 3-to-1 female, but evenly split over and under age 25, said Chris Aronson, Fox's senior vice president of domestic distribution.
The one-two punch of "Cloverfield" and "27 Dresses" helped lift industrywide receipts 19 percent above the same weekend in 2007, according to data firm Media by Numbers.
Although some analysts had expected "27 Dresses" to keep pace with "Cloverfield" or even slay the monster, Aronson said Fox was happy with its box-office results " and by solid audience exit survey scores from men and women alike in spite of the comedy's mixed reviews.
"It was almost like a summer weekend," he said. "Both movies reached their intended audiences, and the marketplace expanded significantly."
The crime comedy "Mad Money," starring Diane Keaton, Queen Latifah and Katie Holmes, also met expectations as the initial release from Overture Films.
The picture, acquired for $6 million, was on pace to gross $9.3 million through four days, said Peter Adee, Overture's president of marketing, distribution and new media. The audience was two-thirds female and 65 percent over 30.
Adee said he expected ticket sales to reach $25 million in the U.S. and Canada. The Liberty Media Corp. division has seven more movies planned for release this year.