By Anthony D'Alessandro | Thompson on Hollywood February 21, 2011 at 6:20AM
Unknown, Liam Neeson's follow-up to sleeper hit Taken, grabbed moviegoers at the Presidents Day weekend box office, which did little to pull Hollywood box office out of its ongoing depression. So far, first quarter box office is off 24 to 28 % from last year, reports Anthony D'Alessandro:
It's not the first time that advance box office tracking misled the studios. Audiences wanted to see Warner Bros.' Neeson thriller Unknown, shelling out an estimated $25.6 million, more than DreamWorks/Disney’s wannabe sci-fi teen franchise I Am Number Four, which had been projected to win first, but came in third with $22.6 million, and far more than Fox/New Regency’s Big Mommas: Like Father, Like Son, which bounced to fifth with $19 million. “It happens,” said Disney distribution head Chuck Viane about the off-traffic estimates. “None of us know how, because if we did, we would fix it.”
“Tracking is certainly not a science and if somebody was able to predict the opening of every movie accurately, they would be able to put up a big sign and retire in a couple of years,” said Warner Bros. distrib chief Dan Fellman. “The public is able to sniff out the good films and enable them to rise to the occasion.”
Clearly, Warners' two-month onslaught of slick TV spots and riveting green-and-white poster collages for Unknown was effective. The marketing sold the film's high concept: a man loses his identity following a car accident. Warners spent an estimated $30 million on P&A – slightly more than the studio shelled out to open The Rite at No. 1 four frames ago.
Hollywood had been seeking to replicate the surprise success of low-budget Euro thriller Taken ($24.7 million, $145 million) which turned Neeson into an action star. Last year at this time, Lionsgate bowed From Paris to Love ($8.2 million, $24 million) with some of Taken elements (Luc Besson and director Pierre Morel) but nobody was interested.
Fox aimed to capitalize on Neeson’s action star image by casting him as the lead in last summer’s The A Team ($25.7 million, $77.2 million) and banked a Taken opening without the legs. At a cost of $30 million, Unknown arrives as a much-needed strong bow for Joel Silver’s genre division Dark Castle, which sucked wind last year with Splice ($7.4 million, $17 million) and DC Comics’ adaptation The Losers ($9.4 million, $23.6 million). While L.A. Times critic Kenneth Turan gushed that Warner Bros. “has come up with a better film than Taken ever was," overall, critics were split on Unknown, which earned a 56% rotten score. (Here's Caryn James.) Demos for Unknown skewed toward older females (51%, 89% over 25) whereas Taken took older males prisoner (52%, 60% over 25).
The irony is that while Number Four was intended to be a franchise, it could turn out that Unknown will bear the sequels. “We’ll have to watch and see what the multiple is before we decide,” said Fellman, “But there’s hope that Joel (Silver) can figure out a way to make it a franchise. The door is left open at the end of the movie and the audience reaction is good.”
DreamWorks got very excited, very fast for I Am Number Four, an alien teen fugitive story written by Pittacus Lore (aka Jobie Hughs and James Frey, the disgraced author of “A Million Little Pieces”). They bought the screen rights before the tome hit bookstands for high six figures, thinking it was a sci-fi Twilight and spent $59 million on the production. And despite Dreamworks' Steven Spielberg and producer Michael Bay being onboard, Disney dropped the ball on marketing the film. Its one sheets were emblazoned with the film’s title in block letters with a watermark of the film’s fresh faced star Alex Pettyfer, a U.K actor who starred in an Agent Cody Banks knock-off called Alex Rider: Operation Stormbreaker ($24 million worldwide). The thinking seemed to be that director D.J. Caruso could flip this kid into becoming a Shia LaBeouf ala his breakout hit Disturbia($80.2 million). Disney missed the opportunity to bring in more girls by promoting Glee hottie Diana Agron.
Furthermore, the film’s TV spots were boxed out by Big Mommas ads during Glee. Tomatometer registered at 28% rotten for Number Four. Number Four’s fate could change.
“People forget that we’re in a seven-day business, so it’s going to be very interesting to see where Number Four stands at the end of the week with 20% of all kids being off from school,” says Viane, who points out that teens awarded the film an A Cinemascore. The film played broadly under and over 35 at 50%; 57% were male.
Big Mommas was never expected to wow the weekend; it came in just under its $20 million estimate. At $32 million, the threequel fits comfortably within New Regency’s low budget comedy mandate vs. the higher-budgeted serious fare (L.A. Confidential) the company pumped out in the ‘90s. In fact, Big Mommas bested the openings of previous urban threequels Beverly Hills Cop 3 ($15.2 million) and Friday After Next ($13 million). Certainly the notion of a guy in fat body drag has grown long in the tooth. Even though both Martin Lawrence and Eddie Murphy preceded Tyler Perry on-screen, Perry has pumped out an annual big lady laffer since 2006’s Big Momma 2 and scored bigger openings: 2009’s Madea Goes to Jail took in $41 million over three days.
Critics aren’t the target audience for these farces; they slammed Big Mommas with a 10% rotten. Big Mommas could travel though: it scored an A among those under 18, B+ overall and drew mostly women (60%). Crowd was split evenly among under/over 25.
The depressed holiday weekend touted several high notes: Oscar contenders The King’s Speech and Black Swan flew past $100 million, while last weekend’s Gnomeo and Juliet dipped a remarkable 12% and Adam Sandler and Jennifer Aniston’s Just Go With It savored a 41% slide from last week’s four-day frame. Justin Bieber's Never Say Never saw 47% less love, a better hold than Hannah Montana’s second frame drop of 67%.
Weekend Top 10 Chart reflects 4-day to 4-day comparison:
1. Unknown (Warner Bros.): $25.6 million in its first weekend at 3,043 theaters. $8,419 theater average. Domestic total: $25.6 million.
2. Gnomeo and Juliet (Disney): $24.8 million down 12% in its second weekend at 3,014 theaters. $8,236 theater average. Domestic total: $55.8 million.
3. I Am Number Four (DreamWorks/Disney): $22.6 million in its first weekend at 3,154 theaters. $7,166 theater average. Domestic total: $22.6 million.
4. Just Go With It (Sony): $21.7 million down 41% in its second weekend at 3,548 theaters. $6,116 theater average. Domestic total: $64.3 million.
5. Big Mommas: Like Father, Like Son (Fox/New Regency): $19 million in its first weekend at 2,821 theaters. $6735 theater average. Domestic total: $19 million.
6. Justin Bieber: Never Say Never (Paramount): $16.5 million down 47% in its second weekend at 3,118 theaters. $5,292 theater average. Domestic total: $51.4 million.
7. The King’s Speech (Weinstein Co.): $7.9 million down 5% in its thirteenth weekend at 2,086 theaters. $3,805 theater average. Domestic total: $104.6 million.
8. The Roommate (Sony/Screen Gems): $4.5 million down 54% in its third weekend at 2,160 theaters. $2,083 theater average. Domestic total: $33.1 million.
9. The Eagle (Focus Features): $4.32 million down 56% in its second weekend at 2,296 theaters. $1,880 theater average. Domestic total: $15.8 million.
10. No Strings Attached (Paramount/Spyglass): $3.7 million down 49% in its fifth weekend at 1,966 theaters. $1,895 theater average. Domestic total: $66.6 million.