If you asked distribution executives on Thursday what was going to be No. 1 at the weekend box office, they would have pointed at the other guy. Sony, Warner Bros. and Disney all had strong prospects, but knew they could easily lose to each other. And this had nothing to do with the usual fall award contenders.
Disney's The Lion King 3D pounced on the top spot again in its second frame with $22.1 million, overtaking four newcomers who filed second through fifth: Sony's baseball-lit adaptation Moneyball scored $20.6 million, Warner Bros./Alcon's 3D Dolphin Tale danced $20.26 million, Liongate's Taylor Lautner actioner Abduction nabbed $11.2 million while Open Road's Killer Elite drooped with $9.5 million.
Given the close proximity of top rankings, Monday could prove a different order for the top-grossing films.When it comes to family fare, it's not unusual for distribution executives to obsess over their placement on the calendar, especially when they seek to capitalize on school vacations. However, with Lion King and Dolphin Tale grossing $42.4 million together, it proves that there's moolah to be made off kiddie pics in the post-summer season. Warner Bros. knew that there was demand for family product, especially 3-D, after stirring the crowd last year with Zack Snyder's The Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole ($55.7 million total B.O.) which bowed to $16.1 million. The film would have been a hit if it hadn't cost $80 million.
So, Warners trimmed their sails this time around, leaving Alcon to foot the $37-million production bill. After the sleeper success of Tri-Star/Film District's Soul Surfer ($43.9 million) last spring and Alcon's success with 2009's The Blind Side ($256 million), Warners knew faith-based audiences would flock to Dolphin with its inspirational real life-redemption tale about a wounded sea creature who survives with a prosthetic tail after losing his in a crab trap. Kids and parents were so moved they gave it an A+. Demos were largely female at 66% with a little less than half the crowd under 18. The studio is looking to steer Dolphin into Free Willy territory: that film yipped a notable $78 million for Warners in 1993.
Problematically, there was a pile-up of films aimed at men this weekend. Distributors split the male demo three ways: Sony's Moneyball went after baseball fans, Open Road's Killer Elite went wafter the rest, while Lionsgate banked on guys plus Twi-hard girls attending Taylor Lautner's Abduction.
You never know. Back in August, no one in the industry predicted that The Smurfs would show such wide appeal. Likewise, Sony didn't see a Lion King rerelease as a possible threat to Brad Pitt-starrrer Moneyball. Studio marketers lobbied for older men with a sports media outlet campaign (a marketing plan that the studio deploys on Adam Sandler pics) and chased women with Brad Pitt pin-up one-sheets and billboards. Sony's clear objective: recreate last year's A Social Network win ($22.4 million opening, $97 million domestic). But the two films, while they share the same studio, screenwriter Aaron Sorkin and producer Scott Rudin, boast different elements and demos. Sony did want to make sure that the $60-million film resonates far beyond its core demo of sports afficionados.
Sony may have lost No. 1, but they may have teed up the movie to play through the world series-- award season-- across all demos. They started in the older range of attendees, 64% over 35, and pulled in almost as many women as men, thanks to Pitt, who worked hard for picture (here's his interview with Fresh Air's Terry Gross.) Celebs like Today Show's Ann Curry and Jerry Seinfeld gushed about Moneyball on Twitter: "Moneyball my new favorite movie of all time! Disregard all previous!" Thanks to word-of-mouth, Moneyball should, like Social Network, hit a four-times multiple.
The media has questioned Taylor Lautner's ability to carry a movie outside the Twilight franchise. Several factors worked against Lautner's Abduction. First, it isn't a major studio release. It's not, say, Lautner's Eagle Eye (which exhibited Shia LaBeouf's B.O. prowess outside Transformers). Lionsgate was never going to pony up studio-level ad bucks. Second, John Singleton has a spotty record with straight action fare. His safety zone is character-driven actioners such as 2 Fast 2 Furious and Shaft. Lastly, Lionsgate kept Abduction away from critics -- always a bad sign (the film ranks at a 3% rotten).
The good news: Lionsgate whetted the appetites of Lautner's Twilight fanbase with advance Abduction screenings which drove 68% females --56% under 25. The under-18s gave it a big, wet A- Cinemascore kiss. Going forward, Lautner's two Twilight films should keep his wattage alive. It's not unusual for a rising star to stumble early on. George Clooney, post-E.R., misfired with One Fine Day ($46.2 million) and The Peacemaker ($41.3 million). On the other hand there's Michael Cera, who is weathering a term in movie jail after back-to-back bombs Year One ($43.3 million) and Scott Pilgrim vs. The World ($31.5 million). Lautner fared slightly better than Robert Pattinson's first outing outside Twilight, the low-budget weepie Remember Me, which opened to a paltry $8.1 million.
Lautner beat out Killer Elite, though, which got trounced by all the competition, missing its $10 million estimate. Open Road was never going to win No. 1 with this Omnilab acquisition, but the financier will have a tough time making their $70 million back. Of the actioner's all-star cast--Robert De Niro, Clive Owen and Jason Statham-- the latter is the guy with the most active box office value as the millenium's nuts-and-bolts shoot-em up version of the 90s' Steven Seagal. Still, Open Road picked the wrong date. With the abundance of mainstream titles, men turned their backs on the hyper-violent Drive in its second weekend, which dropped 49%. Relativity's Machine Gun Preacher, starring Gerard Butler as the religious East African renegade Sam Childers, unspooled in New York and L.A. at four locales grossing $44,000 or a respectable $11,000 per theater. The $25 million production, which Relativity acquired domestic from Lionsgate, expands to 15 markets next Friday including Boston, Washington D.C., Chicago, San Francisco among many other cities.
Top Ten Box Office Chart
1. The Lion King 3D (Disney) $22.13 million down 27% in its second weekend at 2,330 theaters. $9,498 theater average. Domestic total: $61.7 million.
2. Moneyball (Sony) $20.6 million in its first weekend at 2,993 theaters. $6,883 theater average. Domestic total: $20.6 million.
3. Dolphin Tale (Warner Bros./Alcon) $20.26 million in its first weekend at 3,507 theaters. $5,777 theater average. Domestic total: $20.26 million.
4. Abduction (Lionsgate) $11.2 million in its first weekend at 3,118 theaters. $3,593 theater average. Domestic total: $11.2 million.
5. Killer Elite (Open Road) $9.5 million in its first weekend at 2,986 theaters. $3,182 theater average. Domestic total: $9.5 million.
6. Contagion (Warner Bros.) $8.57 million down 41% in its third weekend at 3,136 theaters. $2,731 theater average. Domestic total: $57.1 million.
7. Drive (FilmDistrict) $5.77 million down 49% in its second weekend at 2,904 theaters. $1,987 theater average. Domestic total: $21.4 million.
8. The Help (Disney/DreamWorks) $4.4 million down 32% in its seventh weekend at 2,695 theaters. $1,633 theater average. Domestic total: $154.4 million.
9. Straw Dogs (Sony/Screen Gems) $2.1 million down 59% in its second weekend at 2,408 theaters. $872 theater average. Domestic total: $8.9 million.
10. I Don't Know How She Does It (Weinstein) $2.05 million down 53% in its second weekend at 2,490 theaters. $824 theater average. Domestic total: $8 million.