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your box office explained

Your Box Office Explained: Identity Thief Is 2013’s First Comedy Hit

This Weekend’s Winners: Even with most of the Northeast unwillingly starring in “Finding Nemo,” Universal’s Identity Thief (No. 1 with $36.6 million) overcame Mother Nature’s frosty reception to open big. Meanwhile, Silver Linings Playbook (No. 4 with $6.9 million) gave up barely a tenth of last week’s audience.

This Weekend’s Loser: It ends not with a bang but a whimper for Steven Soderbergh. Side Effects (No. 3 with an estimated $10 million) marks one of his weakest openings ever.

How It All Went Down: Box office was less than half of what it was last year (thank you, Superstorm Nemo) and Identity Thief suffered for it — which of course, only served to underscore both what a winner it was and just how long it’s been since Hollywood uncorked a comedy of any kind at all. “If not for the weather they would have done $40 million,” insists one distribution capo at a rival studio. "It's just that simple."

But whether this is merely pent-up demand in the form of comedy cabin fever or an actual star-driven attraction is a matter of debate. After a steady diet of R-rated action and a smattering of PG-13 dreck, audiences were certainly ready to laugh. “When was the last comedy?” sniffed one rival studio chief. “Look at this Christmas season — nothing! I don't think it's anything more than that.”

But another studio’s vice-chairman is ready to credit the star wattage of McCarthy and Bateman.

“It was really impressive, considering the weather,” said this senior studio suit. “You have to say, when it comes to comedy, Melissa McCarthy is a real star. I also think Jason Bateman is always underrated but a great No. 2.”

This is a sentiment echoed by a former head of studio marketing turned consultant. “She's a star: Mike and Molly is hugely popular, if not in Brentwood and Manhattan. The weekly sitcom exposure cannot be underestimated,” said this consultant, pausing to salivate, “Imagine if the film had better reviews and the East Coast better weather.”

It also helps that McCarthy has been a continuous presence in home entertainment, too, thanks to the enduring success of Bridesmaids. “As you know, Bridesmaids did very well at the box office, but its DVD, video on demand, and cable numbers are — to quote the late Steve Jobs — 'insanely great.'  People are exposed and re-exposed to her in all of these windows and the audience flat out loves her,” explains one savvy writer-producer. “There has also been a real gap in comedy films of late and I think that Universal released this at the perfect time — right after all the super-serious, emotional ‘Oscar’ films hit the end of their runs.”

Certainly, McCarthy’s female fan base seemed to turn out. The Identity Thief crowd was 58 percent females, with well more than half (57 percent) age 30 or older. The film was clearly both date night and ladies' night fodder.

Photo: Guy D'Alema/Universal Pictures