Sunday, August 16, 2009

District 9 tops the box office with $37 million. Time Traveler's Wife opens to $19 million. GI Joe tumbles. Weekend box office in review (08/16/09)

In a not-so surprising surprise, the Peter Jackson-produced sci-fi apartheid parable, District 9, opened to a rather large $37 million in its debut weekend. It was a much-talked about geek draw (worth about $10 million alone), it had sparkling reviews, and it benefited from a creative and low-key advertising campaign (those 'humans only' signs that were plastered all over town). I wish the trailers didn't give away major climactic moments, but that's the game these days (I went in relatively blind on Friday night). Say what you will about the movie, it's low-cost ($30 million) and it's high quality (it drags in the second act, but it's a solid genre picture overall), but opening weekend is all about marketing. The team at Sony/Tri-Star did a bang up job making this the film that everyone thinks they discovered for themselves. This sort of silent promotion has two positive effects. First of all, it gets people into the theater. But second of all, it makes the word of mouth far likely to be higher and more fervent. Movies that audiences 'discover' are the ones that they are more likely to tell their friends about. Audiences were passionate My Big Fat Greek Wedding because they felt a certain ownership, because it was a movie that they felt they had to search out and discover. Since the marketing of District 9 amounted to a big-budget whisper campaign, the film will likely benefit from even better word of mouth than the film would achieve simply be being pretty darn good. If there is anything against the picture in terms of longterm performance, it is the 2.6x multiplier. The picture opened with $14.2 million, then dropped 11% on Saturday to $12.5 million. This in itself isn't a big deal. The film was geek-centered and a hard-R-rated science-fiction thriller. In other words, frontloading was inevitable. We'll see if the terrific word of mouth brings about a better than normal second-weekend hold for this ambitious Alien Nation variation (in this environment, anything under a 50% drop is terrific).

Make no mistake, with an opening this big, the picture can be a one-weekend-wonder and still cross $80 million. But the question is whether or not it can maintain its audience and make it to $100-120 million. The film should absolutely be a 'teaching moment' for studio executives everywhere. The picture only got made because the $145 million adaptation of the video game Halo got put into turnaround due to studio infighting between Fox and Universal. Producer Peter Jackson and first-time director Neill Blomkamp decided to instead raise $30 million and make a smaller, more personal project that would be free of studio politics. An R-rated adaption of Halo, costing nearly five-times what District 9 cost (and with probably an extra $50-100 million in marketing expenses), probably would not have opened all that much better than the $37 million that this cheaper studio pickup ending up grossing. And the final gross probably wouldn't have been much better either. Even if Halo had opened to $60 million and ended up with $200 million, the studio still would have had to bank on international grosses and a dwindling home video marketplace in order to hopefully break even or turn a small profit. Yet the current studio mentality is one that prefers insanely expensive adaptations of well-known projects, when a smartly marketed cheapie can actually end up being far more profitable on a dollar-for-dollar basis.

The inexplicably underrated GI Joe: the Rise of Cobra (it works, live with it) takes a blunt hit, dropping 58% for a $22.5 million second weekend. Chalk it up to word of mouth, as well as District 9 stealing the young male demo that should have been GI Joe's bread and butter. Still, with $98.5 million after ten days (I wonder if Paramount can find enough 'accounted for' cash under their couch by tomorrow to get this one to a $100 million ten-day total), this should be a lock for at least $140 million in the US. Oddly enough, the fact that it didn't absolutely crash and burn like Bruno (-72% in weekend two), Funny People (-62%), X-Men Origins: Wolverine (-69%), or Terminator: Salvation (-62%) means that the film may not be as disliked overall as the conventional wisdom would like to imply. Stranger still is the fact that I'm discussing glass-half-full scenarios for a film that plunged 58% in its second weekend. Wow, this business is truly frontloaded in a manner that I could never have imagined. Still, the picture shot up 26% from Friday to Saturday, which means it could be playing well as a kids flick/family choice. And since there are no more PG-13 action pictures on the horizon for awhile, I wouldn't count Cobra and friends out quite yet. Actually, the month-long onslaught of hard-R pictures will actually help this one, as countless kids will be buying tickets to GI Joe in order to sneak into District 9, Inglorious Basterds, The Final Destination 3D, and/or Halloween 2. Remember kids... you need 3D glasses for The Final Destination and Inglorious Basterds is much longer than anything other than Harry Potter 6 and Transformers 2, so plan your alibis accordingly.

The Time Traveler's Wife scored a solid $19.5 million in its debut weekend. The good news is that it was around the same amount as last weekend's Julie & Julia, which had far more buzz and free press in its favor. The bad news is that it scored a mere 2.49x multiplier (it opened with $7.7 million on Friday), which is almost lousy for an adult-driven romantic drama. Still, yet another New Line film scores thanks to the Warner marketing muscle, and this proves without question that Rachel McAdams can absolutely open a female-driven film (that this was more of a romantic drama than romantic comedy makes the debut even more impressive). This also proves another win for Eric Bana, who has had a terrific summer. Just since May, Bana has ridden the coattails of one of the year's biggest hits (Star Trek), earned great notices for a comic supporting turn (Funny People) and now can have a rock-solid opening weekend with his name above the title in a genre where success has eluded him. The budget on this was under $40 million, so this will be a big longterm success for Warner Bros.

Also costing around $40 million is Julie & Julia, which dropped an okay 38% in its second weekend. After a $12.4 million second weekend, the ten-day total is now at nearly $44 million. Barring a large loss of screens, the weekend drops will get smaller and this one should stick around for awhile. G-Force is at $99.049 million, so expect a change from estimates to final weekend numbers to find that extra $1 million. The Goods: Live Hard and Sell Hard acted like the studio dump it probably was, opening with just $5.3 million on 1800 screens. Tragically, this will likely be the last release for Paramount Vantage, as the big studio is closing up its artier sub-division, presumably to concentrate on franchises and toy-adaptations (there's gold in a Hungry Hungry Hippo horror film!).

The only other two openers also barely made a dent. The Summit Entertainment release Bandslam barely grossed $2.2 million despite containing an exclusive trailer for The Twilight Saga: New Moon. I guess even the hardcores can wait till it's released online tonight or tomorrow (ironically, the low attendance this weekend seems to have prevented said trailer from leaking online). Walt Disney released Ponyo, the latest animated (alleged) masterpiece from Japan's king of the cartoon, Hayao Miyazaki. Kudos to them for the 900 screen release, but it only resulted in a $3.5 million opening weekend. Weep not for Mr. Miyazaki, the movie has already accumulated $183 million in worldwide business prior to the US debut. Since I wasn't brave/foolish enough to take my 21-month old daughter to a first-run movie theater this weekend, I actually tried showing her Kiki's Delivery Service at home instead. To my shock, she was actually pretty intrigued for long stretches.

In limited release land, The Hurt Locker has crossed $10 million and won't make it to $15 million. I say this every weekend, but Summit should have just spent the money and given this very tense and worthwhile war-time thriller a wide mainstream release. If they have the money to open Knowing to $22 million, they could have opened The Hurt Locker to $10 million or more and kept the word of mouth flowing all summer. (500) Days of Summer is at $17 million and will likely cross $25 million. Among the mainstream holdovers, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince continues to trot along to $300 million (it's at $283 million now). Amazingly, after 33 days, it's still tracking ahead of every other film in the series, with its closest competitor a solid $10 million away (thank you midnight-screenings). Funny People won't make it to $60 million. Public Enemies might not make it to $100 million. In purely non-US grosses, Ice Age 3 is the highest-grossing animated film of all time, and it's aiming for the spot as the number 03 cartoon all-time globally (behind Shrek 2 and Finding Nemo), but it still looks like it won't make it to $200 million in the US. And Transformers 2 lost 947 screens this weekend, so it might not make it to $400 million after all (it's at $396 million on just 1007 screens and running out of time). All of these would-be milestones would be a cakewalk if we still had a vibrant second-run theater market. Just saying...

For a look at what happened at the box office over this weekend last year, as well as movie reviews, trailer reviews, and more, check out Mendelson's Memos.

Scott Mendelson

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