The big-budget animated version of 'A Christmas Carol' made the most money at the box office this weekend, but the low-budget 'Precious' made the biggest statement.

Playing in only 18 theaters in four American cities (New York, Los Angeles, Atlanta, Chicago), the grim tale about a sexually abused Harlem teenager grossed $1.8 million, for an astonishing per-theater average of about $100,000. It is fair to say that in one weekend, 'Precious' was transformed from a critics' and film festival favorite to an odds-on Best Picture Oscar contender. The big-budget animated version of 'A Christmas Carol' made the most money at the box office this weekend, but the low-budget 'Precious' made the biggest statement.

Playing in only 18 theaters in four American cities (New York, Los Angeles, Atlanta, Chicago), the grim tale about a sexually abused Harlem teenager grossed $1.8 million, for an astonishing per-theater average of about $100,000. It is fair to say that in one weekend, 'Precious' was transformed from a critics' and film festival favorite to an odds-on Best Picture Oscar contender.

The key to being a player in the Academy Awards is getting voters to see your movie, and even in the hills of Beverly, where most of them live, 'Precious'' opening weekend performance made a very loud noise.

As for 'A Christmas Carol,' its $31 million opening qualifies as a major disappointment. Costing nearly $200 million to make, in the same motion-capture process that its director Bob Zemeckis used on his earlier holiday hit 'The Polar Express,' and starring Jim Carrey in seven roles, analysts were predicting an opening north of $40 million and a total domestic gross of $200-plus million.

It could be that higher ticket prices at IMAX theaters and others showing 'Carol' in 3D discouraged recession-weary moviegoers. In any case, it will now do well to match the $174 million gross of 'Polar Express.'

Besides 'A Christmas Carol,' three other movies opened in wide release and none of them could beat the Michael Jackson concert rehearsal film 'This is It,' which was in its second week in release. 'This is It,' obviously benefiting from repeating viewings by Jackson fans, finished second with about $14 million. Its domestic total is now $57.8 million.

The military farce 'The Men Who Stare at Goats,' opened in nearly 1,000 fewer theaters than 'This is It,' finishing third with $13.3 million. Its per-theater average of $5,448 was second only to 'A Christmas Carol's $8,417 among the wide releases, and bodes well for the Clooney-Bridges-McGregor-Spacey-driven comedy.

As we suggested in our Friday box office forecast, the new mock-documentary UFO thriller 'The Fourth Kind' faced stiff competition among fright fans from the still-performing haunted-house hit 'Paranormal Activity.' 'The Fourth Kind' beat the hold-over, $12.5 million to $8.6 million, and finished one spot ahead of it in fourth place.

But 'Paranormal,' an $11,000 movie that has now earned $97.4 million at the box office, clearly took business away from the newcomer. And with word-of-mouth following its generally dreary reviews, 'The Fourth Kind' is likely to see business fall dramatically next weekend.

The only other new wide release, 'The Box,' finished sixth with a relatively weak $7.9 million opening.

Here's the weekend's top 10 earners, but don't forget 'Precious.'

1. 'A Christmas Carol,' $31 million from 3,683 theaters.
2. 'This is It,' $14 million, 3,481 theaters.
3. 'The Men Who Stare at Goats,' $13,3 million, 2,443 theaters.
4. 'The Fourth Kind,' $12.5 million, 2,529 theaters.
5. 'Paranormal Activity,' $8.6 million, 2,558 theaters.
6. 'The Box,' $7.9 million, 2,635 theaters.
7. 'Couples Retreat,' $6.4 million, 2,857 theaters.
8. 'Law Abiding Citizen,' $6.2 million, 2,474 theaters.
9. 'Where the Wild Things Are,' $4.2 million, 2,756 theaters.
10. 'Astro Boy,' $2.6 million, 1918 theaters.