By Gabe Toro | The Playlist July 31, 2011 at 5:05AM
Update: Well, the tickets have been tallied and it's not quite the box office deadlock that was reported over the weekend. "Cowboys & Aliens" have emerged victorious squeaking out a 800K lead over "The Smurfs," taking in $36.4 million over the blue boys $35.6 million.
There’s a significant difference between being the star of a franchise and being a franchise star. Actors who play James Bond have learned this in great detail. And so Daniel Craig, the latest Bond, learns the lesson remembered by Timothy Dalton and Pierce Brosnan, not to mention Vin Diesel and Hugh Jackman -- outside of your signature role, people don’t care very much. Craig’s biggest Bond-era success so far as been “The Golden Compass,” which sank a franchise before it even started. So, in some ways, the $38 million start for “Cowboys & Aliens” is healthy for a personality like him. It’s also healthy for a western, as only six have ever crossed $100 million, two of them being atypical hybrids, “Rango” and “Wild Wild West.”
Otherwise, a film like this needed to deliver huge numbers to satisfy everyone involved. Last year director Jon Favreau predicted summer 2011 would be a box-office "bloodbath" in terms of all the super hero and genre films going head-to-head and he ironically may be the one hemorrhaging the most. When your producers are Steven Spielberg and Ron Howard, that’s a lot of first dollar gross out the window. “Cowboys & Aliens” wasn’t cheap, and when you spend 14 years developing a property at this budget, you’d like a heavier return on your investment. Of course, this is another Hollywood lesson in price management -- when you’ve got a serious movie that will have to fight against its somewhat-jokey title with an unproven lead actor in a genre not known for being lucrative, producing it for $160 million plus isn’t the best plan.
'Cowboys' should benefit from a smaller-than-usual August, so if it connects with audiences, the film could play. That’s a big if though, and with international distribution split up between multiple partners, combined with the fact that westerns don’t exactly travel, means that everyone’s about to get egg on their face. Which is a pity, as you hate to see a movie that gives work to Sam Rockwell, Clancy Brown and Keith Carradine flop. Somewhere, there’s a studio executive with a Rockwell-Brown-Carradine Venn diagram to ensure this sort of casting doesn’t happen again.
It’s not really about lowest-common-denominator films as much as it’s about LCD titles. Hollywood likes to forget there’s a huge swath of moviegoers who go to the movies with no plans on what to see and, in some cases, a limited knowledge of English. Being that it’s summer time, they bring their kids as well. Naturally, these audiences gravitate to the most simple, recognizable title available. It explains how something like “Little Man” can gross $60 million without anyone ever admitting to seeing it -- the audience was likely comprised of illiterates and people with a tenuous grasp of English who needed to please their obnoxious children.
That can be the only real explanation for the success of “The Smurfs,” yet another on an assembly line of forgettable kid-flick garbage. If the Smurfs didn’t have a solid pop culture recognition level before, Sony made sure to change that, firebombing primetime television with ads and setting up huge Smurf gatherings nationwide for people with too much free time and too little dignity. There’s great victory at Sony offices for going toe-to-toe and matching “Cowboys & Aliens” as “The Smurfs” was opening in far less theaters, with people predicting a much lower first weekend gross. When Monday’s final numbers are released, it wouldn’t be a huge surprise to see “The Smurfs” on top.
A movie doesn’t score these sorts of box office tallies without a few adults paying to see the film (theaters don’t schedule 10 PM showings of “The Smurfs” for nothing), and yet you can bet no one will be willing to admit they spent money on it. Somewhat related, “The Smurfs” scored an A- Cinemascore rating, but would you trust anyone who paid to see “The Smurfs” to vote for anything? The picture also opened huge in Spain, and is sure to do massive numbers overseas as 3D-related theatrics tend to do. The people for whom this is good news need no enabling.
Despite a sharp second weekend fall-off, “Captain America: The First Avenger” is doing healthier numbers than its superhero brethren this season. The 3D numbers will help, but reaching the global numbers that “Thor” racked up might be quite the challenge. If either 'Captain' or “Thor” become the comic book highlights of the year, it will suggest a certain downtrend in these four-color adaptations, as none crossed $200 million domestically, with “Cowboys & Aliens” likely backing up the rear, though no one really knows that comic anyway.
The superhero film decline may be misleading, however, as this summer’s releases were decidedly B-team: 'Captain America' did not perform to the character’s Q-rating, as he’s a little more superhero-y to audience members craving the stronger character dimensions implicit in Spider-Man or Batman. “Thor” isn’t really a brand heavyweight, and “X-Men: First Class” took the characters to a period setting while ignoring the franchise’s more bankable characters. And while DC Entertainment needs to get their stuff together if they want to compete, as “Green Lantern” was the season’s loudest flop, he also isn’t considered a “flagship” character. But next year brings three bona fide comic book heavyweights in “The Dark Knight Rises,” “The Avengers” and “The Amazing Spider-Man.” Those films are more likely to spur movies based on characters like “Black Panther” or “Lobo” than a “Green Hornet” is likely to kill it. And yes, we know “Green Hornet” is based on a radio serial, leave us alone, nerds.
“Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2” is winding down its run, entering its third weekend as the all-time highest-performing film in the series, and this weekend, it became the first billion dollar 'Potter' film. Not to rain on Warner Bros.’ parade, but if you subtract that 3D surcharge, this is the weakest-performing film in the series attendance-wise, and at the end, even with all the media coverage and that record-breaking weekend, the fan base shrunk. It’s the only bad news about this, really, as 'Potter' looks like it will be one of the year’s strongest performers, if not the highest grossing film of the year.
Also opening this weekend was Warner Bros.' well reviewed romantic dramedy, “Crazy, Stupid, Love,” but with five big tentpoles still in major release, it could only take in the 5th spot with a $19.3 million opening.The film benefited from “Larry Crowne” coming and going a couple of weeks ago, as they were likely competing for the same demographic. The vague title and premise probably turned off a number of Steve Carell fans, however, as this opening is actually the lowest of the comedian’s career among wide releases since his bit part in “Bewitched” eight years ago (“Dan In Real Life” collected $12 million in 2007 on slightly less than 2000 screens). This was meant to be a demographic boon, mixing the older Carell fan base with the theoretical crowd that would support Ryan Gosling, but aside from the buzz and Oscar nomination a couple of years ago, he hasn’t had a significant wide release since “The Notebook.”
"Friends With Benefits" held on, and with nearly $40 million in the bank after a second weekend, the film is showing signs it can play for the next few weeks. Not as strongly as "Horrible Bosses," however, as that comedy posted the lowest audience drop in the top 10, comfortably in a position to lap $100 million domestic by next weekend. "Transformers 3," "Zookeeper" and "Cars 2" continue to play, though with none taking a significant hit in the wake of "The Smurfs" we wonder -- are movies literally just for children now? And note: thanks to a big opening in Japan, "Transformers 3" has grossed $983 million which means it's poised to crack the billion dollar mark by next weekend.
Several debuts his the indie circuit this weekend. The biggest was "Attack the Block," which pulled in $130k on only eight screens for a decent $16k per-screen average, though not exactly breakout hit stats. Stronger per-screens were shared by "The Devil's Double" and "The Guard," which averaged $19k and $20k per screen for totals of $95k and $80k on five and four screens, respectively. The biggest per-screen average, however, belonged to Miranda July's "The Future," which grabbed a surprising $28k at its sole opening location. Support your local arthouse, boys and girls.
1. "Cowboys & Aliens" - $36.4 million
2. "The Smurfs" - $35.6 million (global: $41 million)
3. "Captain America: The First Avenger" - $24.9 million (Domestic total: $116.8 million, global: $170 million)
4. "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2" - $21.9 million (domestic gross: $318.5 million, global: $1 Billion)
5. "Crazy, Stupid, Love" - $19.3 million
6. "Friends with Benefits" - $9.3 million (domestic gross: $38.2 million, global: $42 million)
7. "Horrible Bosses" - $7.1 million (domestic gross: $96.2 million, global: $101 million)
8. "Transformers: Dark of the Moon" - $5.97 million (domestic gross: $337.9 million, global: $983 million)
9. "Zookeeper" - $4.2 million (domestic gross: $68.7 million, global: $110 million)
10. "Cars 2" - $2.3 million (domestic total: $182.1 million, global: $400 million)