'Monsters University'
'Monsters University'

Despite the strength of new entries "Monsters University" and "World War Z," last week's even bigger opener "Man of Steel" fell more than expected by 65% to end up in third place. With three strong 3-D performers leading the way, and two sleeper holdovers continuing to gross well, this weekend's Top Ten grossed a solid $226 million, the second best of the year (after the "Fast & Furious 6" opening). For all of this weekend's strength, and with the boost of so many premium 3-D tickets, it's surprising that the overall total didn't reach #1 for the year.

Preopening expectations were that Pixar's "Monsters" would claim the top spot, with Brad Pitt's "World War" and "Steel" fighting it out for second. Instead, the former beat the "Superman" reboot by $24 million for the weekend, beyond anyone's expectations, suggesting that even strong openers are vulnerable to new competition -- something that could be an issue in upcoming weeks as more major new releases appear every week.

Still, the total is a healthy jump from a year ago ($163 million for the top 10), as each week narrows the gap for annual year-to-date performance. The 2013 box office now stands at $150,000 below 2012, after lagging much further behind so far. That gap could be closed over the next two weeks--although it is set against the backdrop of the most expense production costs ever for the summer season.

A24's "The Bling Ring" expanded to 650 theaters and a $2 million gross, just missing the Top Ten; this movie could be grabbing traction with a younger than usual audience for a specialized release.

1. Monsters University (Buena Vista) NEW - Cinemascore: A; Criticwire grade: B; Metacritic score: 64

$82,000,000 in 4,004 theaters; PSA (per screen average): $20,480; Cumulative: $82,000,000

Pixar scores again (its 14th consecutive #1 film), with the (3-D surcharge enhanced) second-best opening gross ever for one of their releases (only "Toy Story 3" was bigger) and third-best ever for an animated film ("Shrek the 3rd" is first). This despite falling at the lower end of critical reaction for their films, which clearly doesn't matter at this point with Pixar's brand recognition. On the other hand this film is a pre-branded sequel and skews younger male than most wide-audience Pixar blockbusters.

"Monsters, Inc." in 2001 opened--without the 3-D premium-- to around $63 million, ultimately grossing close to $300 million (a huge multiple for that level of opening weekend gross).

Buena Vista is having an incredible year -- this is their third boffo opening after "Oz: the Great and Powerful" and "Iron Man 3," though all the pictures, including this one (which likely cost far in excess of $100 million; the first "Monsters" was budgeted at $115 million) were all very expensive and need to perform at this level to justify their cost.

What comes next: This has a two week jump on "Despicable Me 2" domestically (which Universal is opening overseas earlier), so it has room to build up a big initial gross on its way to being one of the biggest hits of the summer.

2. World War Z (Paramount) NEW - Cinemascore: B+; Criticwire grade: B-; Metacritic score: 62

$66,000,000 in 3,607 theaters; PSA: $18,298,000; Cumulative: $66,000,000

With all the anticipation for the summer releases, question marks hung over several of the more expensive productions such as the disappointing "After Earth" and the upcoming "The Lone Ranger," but "World War Z" has warranted more attention in advance of its release due to its costly reshoots. But to the surprise of many, and coming with a major publicity push by star and co-producer Brad Pitt, this has opened above expectations both domestically and worldwide. It also opened in less than a third of foreign territories to around $46 million for the weekend, ahead of "Inception"'s totals in those countries (Nolan's film ended up grossing over $800 million worldwide).

Its production budget, rumored at a minimum of $200 million and likely higher, makes this initial strength critical. The B+ Cinemascore is normally the minimim required to sustain more than a short-term run, so its domestic future is not certain ("Man of Steel" fell 65% with an A Cinemascore in its second weekend), although the foreign initial take does provide hope for ultimate global success.

This is Pitt's best opening since "Mr. and Mrs. Smith" (which with lower ticket costs and no surcharges opened to $50 million with more tickets sold), his biggest ever in unadjusted numbers. Though he has sustained a quarter century career as a star, he rarely has ventured into tentpole/high-budget studio films - the "Ocean's" series and "Troy" along with "Smith" are the biggest exceptions. Coming at this point of his career, this is a strong statement of his continued appeal.

For eclectic director Marc Forster, whose films range from Bond film "Quantum of Solace" (still his best opener) and "Finding Neverland" to "Monster's Ball," "Stranger Than Fiction" and "The Kite Runner"), this is a huge comeback after his most recent effort "Machine Gun Preacher," which failed in limited release to gross $1 million. But his reputation is still tarnished by the need for substantial fixes imposed by the studio, including not only reshoots but an ILM VFX overhaul.

What comes next: The second weekend will be affected as everything else by continued new releases, but this will give a far better indication of its strength ahead. Still, this opening is a clear triumph for Paramount and its production partners.

3. Man of Steel (Warner Bros.) Week 2 - Last weekend: #1

$41,215,000 (-65%) in 4,207 theaters (unchanged); PSA: $9,797; Cumulative: $210,006,000

This is the first $100 million+ opener to fall to third place in its second week (of the other 24, only four didn't repeat at #1), with a percentage drop that is exceeded only by five others (three from the "Twilight" series). And the fall is a bit steeper with last weekend's figures not including the $12 million from the 7 p.m. Thursday shows, most of whose attendees likely would have attended weekend screenings otherwise. One strong reason is the strength of the new films, including one which was aimed at much of the same audience. Despite the size of the drop, $41 million is still a strong figure, and the cumulative take is also decent (but not summer's best), as initial international openings leading to $350 million will put this very expensive production on the road to profit. Still, the drop suggests that this latest attempt to revitalize Superman is not going to reach anywhere close to the levels of Marvel Comics' top efforts ("The Avengers" and "Iron Man 3"), and could easily fall short of winding up as the second-biggest-grossing film of the summer.

What comes next: Like the slightly less expensive "Star Trek Into Darkness," this is another franchise whose expense could factor into sequel plans. But Warners managed the trick when they relaunched the Batman series with creative casting in "The Dark Knight," so figure they have the ability to build from what despite this big drop still looks like a viable franchise going forward.

4. This Is the End (Sony) Week 2 - Last weekend: #2

$13,000,000 (-37%) in 3,055 theaters (unchanged); PSA: $4,255; Cumulative: $57,792,000

A terrific hold building on this all-star comedy's strong opening last weekend, this has already equalled the domestic total of Sony's supposed early summer tentpole "After Earth" at a fraction of its cost. This has potential to go much further as an alternative to more heralded seasonal fare.

What comes next: Sony actually has another film set for next Friday (with "White House Down"), but this has a head of steam that will allow it to push ahead on its own, with a $100 million+ gross now likely.

5. Now You See Me (Lionsgate) Week 4 - Last weekend: #3

$7,870,000 (-29%) in 2,823 theaters (-259); PSA: $2,788; Cumulative: $94,451,000

A fourth week drop of only 29% would be impressive at any time, but against such heavy competition this clearly attests to the continued sleeper appeal of this unherald magician caper that is turning into a minor sensation. Lionsgate has a strong reputation for grabbing success with a range of films, often lower-budgeted than typical studio fare (as well as an eye for franchises like "Hunger Games"), but rare word-of-mouth audience hits reminds that taking risks with original material and creative participants can work, even in the heart of the summer.

What comes next: At this point, with overseas yet to come, this looks headed to at least $125 million domestic.