Sunday, October 18, 2009

Where the Wild Things Are triumphs, Law-Abiding Citizen opens, and Paranormal Acitivty continues to impress. Weekend box office review (10/18/09)

It was good news for everyone at the box office this weekend. Not only did every major new release open within or above expectations, last weekend's wunderkind continued to astonish while the holdovers held just fine. But here's the odd and encouraging note... every single film in the top twelve did more on Saturday than they did on Friday. From new films to holdovers, there was no front loading this weekend.

The weekend's number one film was Spike Jonze's Where the Wild Things Are. This much-debated and/or scrutinized adaptation of the Maurice Sendak storybook took in a solid $32.6 million. Frankly, I firmly believe that Warner Bros is underestimating the Sunday numbers, as they don't yet know how the film is playing to general families. While the strategy of old was to overestimate the numbers you release on Sunday and hope that no one notices the Monday finals, the new game is underestimating the weekend's take, so you can buy a second day of news when it's discovered on Monday that the film 'did even better than expected' (update - the final figures were $200,000 more than the estimate). Regardless, this is a terrific debut for an challenging and risky art picture. Critics were divided over whether the live-action mood piece was intended for children or adults, but in the end they all showed up anyway. Since word of mouth on this atypical family adventure is sure to be sharply divisive (some were moved to tears while some were bored to tears), we can't yet know whether this will be a quick flame out or a long-term hit. Warner Bros. once again proved themselves to be the most artistically incline of the major studios. While execs and producers may have clashed with Jonze, in the end he got to make the $80 million movie that he wanted to make. Warner Bros seems to understand the benefit of letting gifted artists make their movies. Sometimes you end up with noble failures or misunderstood flops like Watchmen or Speed Racer, sometimes you end up with Harry Potter or The Dark Knight. This time the artistic gamble has paid off, with a big opening weekend for a film that is all but destined to be a classic of sorts to a large number of moviegoers (a climactic line of dialogue is sure to be a catchphrase in the months if not years to come).

Second place went to Overture's Law-Abiding Citizen. The year-old studio scored their biggest opening yet, with a $21 million weekend. The $50 million-budgeted F. Gary Gray film was a not so surprising pull for one very simple reason - it's a mid-budget star-driven, grown-up thriller that looks appealing in a Saturday night at the movies way. Since so few of these get made anymore, the ones that do (Vantage Point, Taken, etc) should expect to open well as there still is such a demand for an 'old-fashioned pot boiler'. The movie is trash, inexplicably stupid trash that doesn't have to courage the be truly preposterous, but I wasn't bored and I do sincerely miss the genre, as well as the constant employment that it provides for character actors. Third place went to Paranormal Activity, which expanded to 760 screens and grossed $19.6 million. That's a measly $25,815 per screen average, down from its $49,000 per screen last weekend. Obviously, everyone involved in this $11,000 production should hang their heads in shame. That's only the third-biggest weekend for a film playing on fewer than 1,000 screens (behind the 868-screen $23 million debut weekend of Fahrenheit 9/11 and the 683-screen $31 million debut of Hannah Montana: Best of Both Worlds). It's also $713 less per screen than the first wide-release weekend of The Blair Witch Project, which pulled in $26,528 per screen on 1,100 screens. And really, Blair Witch had $36 million in the bank at the end of its first wide-release weekend, while Paranormal Activity has but $33 million. Pathetically, as it (theoretically) goes super-wide and faces off against the Saw franchise, the somewhat divisive horror film has only made 3000x its budget. Lame.

Fourth place went to Couples Retreat, which dropped a so-so 49% for a $17.2 million second weekend. The new total for the 'who-cares?' comedy is now $62.6 million. I guess CinemaScore was wrong about it getting to $133 million because of a 'B' grade from audiences. Funny, back in my day, a film that got a mere B from CinemaScore was actually in a little trouble. No matter, the film should have a decent chance at topping out at $100 million, which is just fine. Fifth place went to the wonderful, glorious remake of The Stepfather. I haven't seen the film, but it's wonderful and glorious that the remake caused the original film (and its lousy sequel) to finally get special-edition DVD treatment. All hail remakes! Anyway, said necessary remake pulled in just $11.5 million, which isn't abysmal but is below the usual $20 million plateau for Screen Gems' PG-13 horror (Prom Night, When A Stranger Calls). Interestingly enough, this was the rare modern slasher film that had a male lead, which may have impacted its box office (notice how Screen Gems was so forceful in showing off co-star Amber Heard in a bikini). Be they misogynists or feminists, a big chunk of slice-and-dice fandom comes from people wanting to see cute girls running to and from danger. Deny them that core element at your peril.

Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs crossed the $100 million mark just before the weekend, and its new total is $108 million. This is Sony's first $100 million+ grossing cartoon, and it joins a growing body of Sony animated films (Monster House, Surf's Up) that were frankly better than expected. Sony may not yet be on the same playing field as Disney and Dreamworks, but it's certainly healthier than anyone else other than Fox (Ice Age, Horton Hears A Who, Robots). It will be quite interesting to see if November's Planet 51 can cash in on Sony's apparent drive for quality (although Planet 51 looks as generic as can be). Zombieland dropped an unfortunate 48%, which brings its new total to $60.6 million. Regardless of whether the zombie comedy makes it to $100 million (doubtful), it's already well into profitability and can stand tall as a new classic that will be rented and watched on cable until the end of time. Toy Story/Toy Story 2 3D broke its word and extended past its two-week run (shocker!), but was rewarded with a 61.2% drop (that screaming you hear is from Sony, who could have used all of those 3D screens that were supposed to be freed up). Still, the new total for this experiment/commercial is now $28.5 million.

In other news, Surrogates is struggling to get to $40 million while Whip It is at $11.3 million (please promise me you'll rent both of those). Capitalism: A Love Story is at $11.6 million, proving that even Michael Moore's worst film can still crack the ten list for top-grossing documentaries (it'll be #9 by tomorrow). A Serious Man expanded for a $10,000+ per screen average. Alas, Black Dynamite crashed and burned in limited release ($131,862 from 70 screens) and New York I Love You did just $380,776 on 119 screens. That's all for this weekend. Next weekend we have the 800 screen release of Amelia, the allegedly quite good old-school biopic of Amelia Earhart, the shockingly well-reviewed Astro Boy, and the poorly reviewed Cirque du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant. But the big story is sure to be one of the most unexpected smack downs of the year, as the phenomenon Paranormal Activity goes into true wide-release against what should have been the undisputed king of Halloween, Saw VI. Oh yes... there will be blood.

Scott Mendelson

For more box office, movie reviews, trailer reviews, news commentary, and original essays, go to Mendelson's Memos.

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