Hotel Transylvania

For the first weekend in a while, there's been a real uptick in business. The top ten films grossed $105 million, compared to last week's $71 million and $84 million a year ago. Led by two Sony releases in the top positions, followed by indie holdover "End of Watch," the wide range of films prove that outside-the-box production decisions can deliver --and broaden the kind of non-sequel, non-franchise series films that get made.

The big surprise of the week is the strong opening of Universal's college-set relationship comedy "Pitch Perfect." Without the benefit of the usual marketing elements included in most limited releases, especially any big-name draws, and with primrily female appeal, the movie opened in sixth place in only 335 theaters, with a weekend gross that is almost $1 million better than "The Master" had for its initial expansion (in twice as many theaters).

1. Hotel Transylvania (Sony) NEW - Cinemascore: A-; Metacritic score: 46

Emily Blunt in "Looper"
Emily Blunt in "Looper"

$43,000,000 in 3,349 theaters; PSA (per screen average): $12,840,000; Cumulative: $43,000,000

The Halloween season starts earlier every year in theaters. This 3-D animated horror comedy is the latest in Sony Pictures Animation's solid-or-better entries in this lucrative genre. The weekend gross is $7.5 million above that of summer opening of "The Smurfs" last year, and almost $13 million better than September opener "Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs." This is the best weekend since "The Dark Knight Rises."

Sony Animation's production costs, though high, tend to fall below those of some other studios (this film reportedly came in between $65-100 million). This looks, with additional significant foreign appeal, like a big success.

Sony is correctly boasting that this is the best gross ever for a September opening (beating "Sweet Home Alabama"). However, ticket prices (more so with the 3-D premium) are more than 35% higher now than 10 years ago, so adjusting for inflation this is not a record setter.

What comes next: "The Smurfs" ended up with $142 million domestic/$563 million worldwide. That film had the advantage of late summer playtime to its advantage. With Tim Burton's "Frankenweenie" opening Friday, this will face some competition. This isn't a question of whether it's a hit, but how big.

2. Looper (Sony) NEW - Cinemascore: B; Metacritic score: 84

$21,200,000 in 2,992 theaters; PSA: $7,085; Cumulative: $21,200,000

With the highest Metacritic score of the year of any initial wide release, this time-travel thriller starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Bruce Willis boasts a core target audience tof under-35 males that tends to be less-critic oriented. The gross indicates better-than-normal appeal than its two leads on their own would be expected to attract (Gordon-Levitt's "Premium Rush" last month grossed less than $20 million for its full run), so Sony's marketing has connected. This gross is good enough to have easily scored #1 any of the past six weeks.

Financed by Endgame Entertainment with a reported cost of around $30 million, this is by far their most successful venture so far (others they've produced either solely or in partnership include "Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle," Rian Johnson's last film "The Brothers Bloom," "Hotel Rwanda" and "I'm Not There"). In a time of tricky financing, they've succeeded on a risky bet with a smart, well-received original film. FilmDistrict, which a year ago released the equally smart "Drive," was a production partner with Sony's Tristar division.

For director Johnson, the Friday gross is bigger than the combined total domestic take for his first two films ("Brick" and "The Brothers Bloom") so this marks a major leap forward. For Gordon-Levitt, who has balanced supporting roles in big-budget hits ("Inception," "The Dark Knight Rises," "G.I. Joe) with indies of varying success ("500 Days of Summer," "50/50") this melds both in a career-boosting way. Bruce Willis is going through a renaissance after the two "Expendables" films, "Moonrise Kingdom" and "Red," and has passed the 25-year mark as a major global draw.

What comes next: The big question -- will word of mouth attract a wider, older audience that could sustain this down the line? This, like "End of Watch," is an intelligent genre film aimed at general audiences, combining a modest budget with a smart script, an up-and-coming director and a known but not always big-grossing young lead actor. Any significant success (throw in "Lawless" with Shia LeBoeuf) will encourage young actors to pursue films that aren't cookie-cutter studio formulas--and might earn better reviews.

3. End of Watch (Open Road) Week 2 - Last Weekend: #1

$8,000,000 (-38%) in 2,780 theaters (+50); PSA: $2,878; Cumulative: $20,269,000

Holding much better than Open Road's biggest hit so far ("The Grey," which fell 53% its second weekend, while opening much higher than "End of Watch"), this is a decent performance against two robust openers.

What comes next: Open Road's game plan is to acquire films and put most of its money into marketing. This weekend's performance suggests they've made another successful investment.