The Lone Ranger

Universal's much-bigger-than-expected "Despicable Me 2" led the field, outgrossing Disney's disappointing "The Lone Ranger" by two thirds. (It has amassed a remarkable $142 million in five days, while "The Lone Ranger" scored $48 million total.) Despite "The Lone Ranger," which marks the third big-budget studio disappointment of the summer, the three-day post-Independence Day holiday weekend far outscored last year's box office top ten by 12 %.

These strong three post-holiday grosses followed a robust Wednesday to Thursday. These numbers will help summer 2012 catch up with last year, but many would-be tentpoles are saddled with higher-than-ever production costs. The year so far is still down around 4%.

The rest of the top 10 showed a diversity of offerings, with several movies not targeted to male action fans holding their own, led by Fox' female-driven holdover "The Heat" and comedian Kevin Hart's concert film opener "Let Me Explain."

1. Despicable Me 2 (Universal) NEW - Cinemascore: A; Criticwire: B-; Metacritic score: 62

$82,518,000 in 3,997 theaters; PSA (per screen average): $20,645; Cumulative: $142,076,000

"Despicable Me 2"
"Despicable Me 2"

Though the first "Despicable" entry opened at $56 million and the sequel was expected to score, the $142 million five-day take came about $40 million above expectations. Put in context, the "Despicable Me 2" total is $14 million more than Warner Bros.' ballyhooed "Man of Steel" grossed in its first five days, despite the latter having far more adult-ticket price attendees (though "Steel" opened on Thursday, not Wednesday).

Worldwide, this was the #1 film in 42 of 46 territories open so far, with a foreign take (including earlier openings) a bit ahead of the domestic showing. This is double the gross for the first film in similar situations, which ended up with almost $300 million international. If the performance overall continues, this could wind up second in year-end total gross only to "Iron Man 3."

Credit is due to Universal's animation partner Illumination Entertainment, led by Chris Meledandri, who had supervised Twentieth Century Fox's Blue Sky films, for giving the audience what it wanted: more minions. Illumination can be considered in a league with Pixar and Dreamworks Animation: all can be relied on to deliver consistent commercial quality feature animation.  The two directors of both "Despicable" films are French animators Chris Renaud ("The Lorax") and Pierre Coffin, who came from French television.

What comes next: A sequel featuring the film's Minion characters has already been announced.

2. The Lone Ranger (Buena Vista) NEW - Cinemascore: B+; Criticwire: C; Metacritic score: 37

$29,432,000 in 3,904 theaters; PSA: $7,539; Cumulative: $48,396,000

What were they thinking? With the only breakout Westerns in recent years -- "True Grit" and director Gore Verbinski's animated "Rango" -- totalling about $250 million each worldwide, producer Jerry Bruckheimer and Disney gambled on spending that much--plus $150 million in worldwide marketing-- on the runaway production "The Lone Ranger."

Even with a normal Friday opening (the two-day holiday take added $19 million to the total), the movie would have still totaled about $40 million, which is far below what any of the Bruckheimer/Verbinski/Depp "Pirates of the Caribbean" films amassed. Indeed, that would have below the norm for most of Bruckheimer's other hits (mainly with Disney for the last two decades, including "National Treasure," "Armageddon" and "Pearl Harbor") without adjusting for higher ticket prices. And all this for one of the producer's (and Disney's) most expensive films ever.

The gross shows the problems with these high-cost films. Betting on Johnny Depp to provide the core appeal, they managed to draw perhaps six million paying customers (normally a decent showing) for a genre of uncertain domestic and even less assured foreign appeal, all in a film about a character best known to Medicare recipients with a mixed action/comedy tone that when it works (a la "Pirates") can become a windfall, but is still very tricky to pull off.

Bruckheimer --aside from his two "National Treasure" hits-- has recently failed with pricey "Sorcerer's Apprentice" and "Prince of Persia." His earlier franchises "Beverly Hills Cop" and "Bad Boys" followed standalone hit "Top Gun." Disney, after an otherwise boffo year boasting three multi-hundred million worldwide performers ("Oz: The Great and Powerful," "Iron Man 3" and "Monsters University"), has failed to provide the start for a hoped-for theme-park and multi-media franchise to replicate "Pirates," and director Verbinski has his first big-budget failure after a string of successes, including the Oscar-winning "Rango." For Johnny Depp, this follows "Dark Shadows" as another disappointment after a decade of standout success.

What comes next: How international does -- will Depp's usually strong draw overcome an aversion to Westerns and lack of familiarity with the character? -- will determine how big a loss this finally is.