LOS ANGELES - For the last man on Earth, Will Smith sure has a lot of friends.
The Warner Bros. tale "I Am Legend," starring Smith as a plague survivor who may be the last living human, debuted with $76.5 million, the biggest December opening ever and a personal best for one of Hollywood's top box-office champs, according to studio estimates yesterday.
"It's no wonder Will Smith feels so lonely. Everyone else on earth is in the movie theater," said Paul Dergarabedian, president of box-office tracker Media By Numbers.
The 20th Century Fox family flick "Alvin and the Chipmunks," starring Jason Lee in a big-screen take on the cartoon critters, opened a strong No. 2 with $45 million. The two films combined to give Hollywood a year-end surge after a drowsy fall season.
"Forty-five million acorns," said Chris Aronson, senior vice president for distribution at 20th Century Fox. "Chipmunks are diurnal animals and they do hibernate, but not right now."
Overall business soared, with the top 12 movies taking in $153.6 million, up 39 percent from the same weekend a year earlier, when Smith also was No. 1 with a $26.5 million debut for "The Pursuit of Happyness."
The previous No. 1 movie, New Line Cinema's fantasy "The Golden Compass," nose-dived in its second weekend, coming in third with $9 million, down a dismal 65 percent from its less-than-expected $25.8 million debut a week earlier.
"The Golden Compass," which cost $180 million to produce, has done $90 million so far overseas but has proven a dud domestically with just $41 million.
On the other hand, "I Am Legend" smashed Smith's personal debut record, easily exceeding the $52.1 million opening weekends of "I, Robot" and "Men in Black II," his previous bests. "I Am Legend" outdid the $72.6 million premiere of 2003's "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King," the previous best December opening.
"It's nice to be in the Will Smith business," said Dan Fellman, head of distribution for Warner Bros. "He is just the No. 1 box-office star in the world today."
Based on the Richard Matheson novel filmed twice before as Vincent Price's "The Last Man on Earth" and Charlton Heston's "The Omega Man," "I Am Legend" casts Smith as a scientist trying to find a cure and fighting off the vestiges of humanity, people transformed by the plague into vampire-like creatures.
Two Golden Globe nominees just hitting theaters did well in their second weekends.
Focus Features' "Atonement" - a tragic romance that led the Globes with seven nominations, including best drama and acting honors for Keira Knightley and James McAvoy - pulled in $1.85 million in 117 theaters. That gave "Atonement" a strong average of $15,835 a theater, compared to $21,224 in 3,606 cinemas for "I Am Legend."
Fox Searchlight's "Juno," a teen-pregnancy comedy whose three nominations included best comedy or musical and an acting honor for Ellen Page, grossed $1.44 million in 40 theaters for a $36,018 average.
"Atonement" and "Juno" expand into nationwide release over the next three weekends.
Another Golden Globe nominee, the Paramount Classics-DreamWorks foreign-language contender "The Kite Runner," debuted strongly with $450,970 in 35 theaters for a $12,885 average. Spanning the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan to modern times, the film follows an emigrant to America who returns home to rescue the son of a childhood friend.
Francis Ford Coppola's first film in 10 years, "Youth Without Youth" from Sony Pictures Classics, had a so-so debut of $27,815 in six theaters, averaging $4,636. The film stars Tim Roth as an elderly language scholar whose youth is restored by lightning.