The recruits in "Ender's Game."
The recruits in "Ender's Game."

November got off to a string start as a stronger than expected Saturday boosted the weekend box office. Three openers grossed $16 million or better for the first time since mid-August, and last week's #1, "Bad Grandpa," enjoyed a great hold. The top 10 scored $115 million, down from $119 last year (which boasted "Wreck-It Ralph" and "Flight"). The fall season is looking up after a disappointing October (despite "Gravity") as two massive openings are coming in the next weeks ("Thor: The Dark World" next Friday and "Catching Fire" on 11/22) which should spread business through varying demographics.

Audiences flocked to "Ender's Game," (Lionsgate/Summit), "Last Vegas" (CBS) and "Free Birds" (Relativity), although they carried a range of budgets ("Vegas," the least expensive, looks to have the easier path to profit). Their strongest competition is yet to come -- "Thor" started opening around the world last weekend, and has already taken in over $100 million in foreign revenues, while "Catching Fire" is expected to be a massive domestic hit. 

1. Ender's Game (Lionsgate) NEW - Cinemascore: B+; Criticwire: B-; Metacritic: 51

$28,000,000 in 3,407 screens; PSA (per screen average): $8,218; Cumulative: $28,000,000

This is a reasonable gross considering the cast and lack of awareness of the 1980s futuristic sci-fi novel from Scott Orson Card.  Summit Entertainment (now merged with Lionsgate), which was seeking to replace the "Twilight" series, partnered with Odd Lot and VFX house Digital Domain to produce this $110 million venture--and that's before global marketing costs. The movie may not recoup. 

The project credits a staggering eight producers, but the main driving force was Odd Lot's Gigi Pritzker ("Drive," "The Spirit") who nurtured this for a decade after it gestated for a long time at Warners. Gavin Hood, the South African director of "Tsotsi" and "Rendition" came on board after he made "X-Men Origins: Wolverine" (worldwide gross $373 million). The leads skew young, with 'True Grit''s Hailee Steinfeld and 'Hugo''s Asa Butterfield joining veterans Harrison Ford, Viola Davis, and Ben Kingsley.

Despite the success of the "Twilight" series and "Hunger Games," the teen-character market is tricky and demands an intensity of interest from a younger demographic. Audience surveys actually indicate that this had a majority of attendees over 25. International started slowly, with last week's U.K. release only landing in at #5.

What comes next: "Thor: The Dark World" will provide major competition next weekend, so this is going to need good word of mouth to be able to compete, and "Catching Fire" over Thanksgiving also will prove tough. Much better international results will be needed to make this a success.

2. Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa (Paramount) Week 2; Last weekend #1

$20,500,000 (-%) in 3,345 screens (+9); PSA: $6,129; Cumulative: $62,058,000

An outstanding second week hold for this latest "Jackass" entry, falling far less than any of the three previous films. This huge success in relation to cost ($15 million) is shaping up to be one of the biggest studio successes of the year, with an $100 million domestic total looking easy now. The word of mouth is leading to repeat business.

What comes next: This is a real shot in the arm for this franchise just at the point where it might have been expected to fade away.

3. Last Vegas (CBS) NEW - Cinemascore: A-; Criticwire: C+; Metacritic: 48

$16,520,000 in 3,065 screens; PSA: $5,390; Cumulative: $16,250,000

The fall focus on older characters continues, as this "Hangover" for the Medicare set scored a big jump on Saturday to yield a modestly upbeat opening with the chance of real success if it hangs on. This adult-skewed comedy stands a chance as decent counter-programming to action sequels in the next few weeks. With a majority (83%) of 25 and older ticket buyers-- and less than stellar reviews--this initial reaction is a credit to CBS Films' marketing team. The Cinemascore suggests a better audience reaction than critics. With a reasonable $28 million production cost, an original comedy, as proven by "Bad Grandpa," "We're the Millers" and "The Heat," is always in demand.

The ensemble cast of five Oscars winners (Robert De Niro, Morgan Freeman, Kevin Kline, Michael Douglas, Mary Steenburgen) combined aided its credibility. Director Jon Turteltaub's nine previous films--all made at Disney-- have grossed over $1 billion domestically (including "While You Were Sleeping" and the two "National Treasure" entries). His Disney run came to an end with the failure of "Sorcerer's Apprentice." The "Last Vegas" writer was Dan Fogelman, who came out of animation ("Cars," "Bolt," "Tangled") before making an impact in comedies ("Crazy Stupid Love," "Guilt Trip.") This looks like a positive transition for both of these filmmakers, a rare case of veterans moving somewhat outside their past comfort zones.

What comes next: Should this maintain a decent hold through the lucrative Thanksgiving period.

4. Free Birds (Relativity) NEW - Cinemascore: A-; Criticwire: C-; Metacritic: 38

$16,200,000 in 3,736 screens; PSA: $4,336; Cumulative: $16,200,000

The first entry from Relativity's partnership with Reel FX Animation cost $55 million, not wildly expensive for 3-D animation. This initial gross is not bad for an original (not pre-sold) Thanksgiving holiday story about turkeys at risk. This has a long way to go before it becomes a success, but its A- Cinemascore should help.

Director Jimmy Hayward had a major hit with "Horton Hears a Who" for Fox in 2008 ($154 million) before flopping with "Jonah Hex" two years later. Producer Scott Mosier has been known mainly for producing Kevin Smith'a oeuvre through "Zack and Miri Make a Porno."

What comes next: Relativity has only "Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs 2" as competition for young kids until Disney's "Frozen" comes the day before Thanksgiving. That should give this feature a shot at accumulating a significantly higher total before then and then still hanging on through the holidays.