NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- Dreamworks Animation (DWA) , which took write-downs on three of its previous four films, blew away industry forecasts this weekend when it latest film "Home" debuted with ticket sales of $54 million, according to box office tracking firm Rentrak. At its current pace, the film could become one of Dreamworks' biggest hits in years.
The unexpectedly strong performance for the film, which industry executives speculated would open with about $35 million in domestic sales, could insure a healthy first quarter for the Glendale, Calif.-based company that reported a $309.6 million net loss for 2014.
Dreamworks CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg told investors in a conference call on Feb. 24 that the company needed "Home," its only film release this year, to at least break even for the company to report operating income of break-even or better. A Dreamworks spokesman declined comment.
The animated film, the story of an alien on the run from his own people after they land on Earth, features the voices of Jim Parsons, Steve Martin, Rihanna and Jennifer Lopez.
"We were expecting a mid-3- opening, maybe something with a 4 in front of it," said Chris Aronson, president of domestic distribution for Fox, which released the film for Dreamworks. "With the talent we had - Riihanna and J Lo -- we think the film moved up in age. Friday and Saturday nights were very strong."
According to Fox's exit polls, 43% of the audience was over 25 years old. A strong 64% of the overall audience said they would post "all positive" marks on social media platforms, including Facebook (FB) - Get Report and Twitter (TWTR) - Get Report.
Based on the performance of its March 2013 release, "Croods," "Home" could chalk up domestic sales of $200 million or more. "Croods" opened with $43.6 million and ended with $187.2 million at the domestic box office, according to Box Office Mojo.
Janney Capital Markets analyst Tony Wible estimates the film's break even at $120 million at the domestic box office. He rates Dreamworks stock a sell, with a $21.97 price target. Shares closed on Friday at $22.68 a share.
The film's final tally could build because there isn't another animated film in the box office until the June 19 release of "Inside Out" from Pixar and Walt Disney, said Fox's Aronson. "Home" has also generated $48.2 million in international markets so far, according to Fox.
Cinderella opened on March 13 with nearly $67.9 million for that weekend. So far, it has grossed $150 million in domestic sales and $186 million worldwide, according to Disney.
Parsons, Martin and Rihanna made the rounds to talk shows the Friday "Cinderella" opened, and fielded questions from local newspapers and TV stations at a New York City junket that weekend. A few days later, a special "Home" premiere was held in Plano, Texas to honor the winner of a contest to pick a worthy charity. ABC's "Good Morning America" covered the event.
Meanwhile Fox plastered ads on TV, including Parson's top-rated CBS (CBS) - Get Report sitcom "The Big Bang Theory." On March 19, "American Idol" judge Jennifer Lopez promoted her song "Feel the Light" from the movie's soundtrack on 21st Century Fox's (FOX) - Get Report popular music competition show.
"'Home's' over-performance this weekend proved that there is clearly a need for more PG-rated family entertainment in a theatrical landscape that has been dominated by R-rated content since the start of the year," said Paul Dergaradebian, Rentrak senior media analyst. ""Home was perfectly positioned and perfectly marketed to take advantage."
In 2013, Dreamworks recorded an impairment charge of $11.9 million for its film "Turbo," it said in its financial filings, and in 2014 recorded $96.7 million in charges for "Mr. Peabody and Sherman" and "The Penguins of Madagascar."
This article is commentary by an independent contributor. At the time of publication, the author held positions in Walt Disney and CBS.