Thompson on Hollywood

Star-studded sci-fi western Cowboys & Aliens was expected to handily win the weekend box office, but had to scuffle with family-friendly The Smurfs for the top spot. Anthony D'Alessandro reports:

In a shootout at the cinema corral, Sony’s The Smurfs ambushed Universal’s co-production Cowboys & Aliens for the No. 1 spot, with both studios splitting their gold nuggets at an estimated $36.2 million apiece. Family films kicking fanboys in the pants is nothing new: back in March, Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Rodrick Rules pulled the rug out from under Sucker Punch.

UPDATE: After the dust settled, Universal was closer to their weekend estimate than Sony. Cowboys & Aliens actuals were $36.4 million, beating the $36.2 projection. Sony saw Smurfs slide to $35.6 million. While most grosses decline from Saturday to Sunday, Cowboys outpegged Smurfs, $10.3 million to $9.74 million yesterday. Working strongly in Smurfs' favor over the next month is that school doesn't return to session until about mid-August. The only foe for the blue people is Spy Kids: All the Time in the World on August 19. Aliens are the least of Cowboys' concern as it fends off a string of upcoming genre flicks: Rise of the Planet of the Apes (this Friday), Final Destination 5 (August 12), Conan the Barbarian and Fright Night (August 19). Team Cowboys continues to burn the midnight oil in terms of PR: Harrison Ford makes an appearance tonight on Conan followed by Olivia Wilde tomorrow.

More details and the top ten box office chart are below.

Thompson on Hollywood
Meanwhile, Warner Bros. is the cat who ate the canary, having siphoned adults away from Cowboys & Aliens with Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2, which became the franchise’s highest-grosser of all-time ($318.5 million domestic and $1 billion global), and its Steve Carell adult ensemble comedy Crazy, Stupid, Love which beat estimates with $19.3 million.

This wasn't how Sunday was suppose to go down for Cowboys & Aliens. After the headlines about the film as a potential franchise, the swapping Robert Downey, Jr. and Tommy Lee Jones for Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford, the project turned into another over-budget studio picture comparable to 1999's $180-million Will Smith sci-fi/western Wild Wild West, which took a box office bath. Cowboys and Aliens cost $163-200 million (Universal and Relativity are both on the hook for 25% each while DreamWorks bankrolled 50%). Wild Wild West unspooled over the Independence Day holiday giving it some extra umpf, but Cowboys B.O. is practically on par with Wild Wild West, which cleared a five-day haul of $41 million, a dismal figure at the time for a Smith opener and a ho-hum $113.8 million domestic next to its budget.

THR compared Cowboys to Super 8, which is apples and oranges: one is a high-budget synthetic and the other a low budget ‘80s sci-fi throwback. Why did Cowboys fall short? It’s Z-grade comic-book pulp; a genre hybrid that really doesn’t trigger an avalanche of audiences into theaters. While exec producer Steven Spielberg may have thought he had another Men in Black ($250.7 million domestic), a little, unknown comic book adaptation that could potentially do big business, he knew the filmmakers were playing it straight with no laughs. Basically, post-Iron Man, Favreau was able to put together a strong enough ensemble to allow the suits to take a chance on something everyone knew was a huge risk.

It's to Favreau’s credit that he approached the material seriously in order to avoid Wild Wild West or worse (Mars Attacks!, at $37.8 million). The trouble with this kind of thing is you have to hit it out of the park. And critics shot it down with a 44% rotten rating. Fan-friendly Favreau tweeted and promoted Cowboys more than Barnum and Bailey advertised their own circus. His promotional stunts -- from directing an episode of Jimmy Kimmel Live to a 3.3 million viewed YouTube Freddie W parody–-were true to the spirit of the film and tried to hit the twentysomething demo. The film still wound up pulling 63% over 30 years old. Males dominated at 53% with the overall Cinemascore at B. Grosses remained even between Friday and Saturday: each day earned an estimated $13 million. When Wild Wild West was released, Warner Bros. attributed the under-18 crowd as the catalyst for its grosses. How times have changed.

The Smurfs, which was expected to be more counter-programming than competition, scored an A- Cinemascore, with A for the under-18 set; 65% of the crowd was comprised of kids and parents. Moms and daughters outweighed with 64% female. 3-D provided some boost, repping 45% of the gross. Working greatly in the film’s favor is the whole animated-live action retro-toon revival that Alvin and the Chipmunks accelerated in 2007 when it bowed to $44.3 million. Sony pulled out all the stops in promoting the film, with Nickelodeon sneak peeks, McDonalds Happy Meal tie-ins, a November trailer and even a global Smurfs day on June 25 to celebrate the birthday of its creator Peyo. But most of all, families saw that the Smurfs, just like the Chipmunks, were going to deliver on the fun. That’s why they went.

Meanwhile Warners' romantic ensemble comedy Crazy, Stupid, Love earned an A among the under 25 crowd and a B+ overall. “We’ve been talking to theater owners all morning and there’s a lot of applause at the end,” beamed Warner Bros. distribution chief Dan Fellman. Critics, who delivered a glowing 74% fresh rating, helped to drive adults to this Carell comedy, which is more in the spirit of his and Tina Fey's Date Night than Get Smart. Warners may try to position the film heading into award season. “There are a lot of things we’re looking at,” says Fellman, who sees long legs for the film, which drew 64% female with 71% over 25. Elsewhere, Warner Bros. expects Horrible Bosses to cross $100 million on Thursday.

Screen Gems' Attack the Block bowed at eight sites drawing a meaty $16,306 or $130,000 over three days.

Top Ten Box Office Chart:

1. The Smurfs $36.2 million in its first weekend at 3,395 theaters. $10,663 theater average. Domestic total: $36.2 million.

1. Cowboys and Aliens (Universal/DreamWorks-Relativity) $36.2 million in its first weekend at 3,750 theaters. $9,655 theater average. Domestic total: $36.2 million.

3. Captain America: The First Avenger $24.9 million down 62% in its second weekend at 3,715 theaters. $6,704 theater average. Domestic total: $116.8 million.

4. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 $21.9 million down 54% in its third weekend at 4,145 theaters. $5,290 theater average. Domestic total: $318.5 million.

5. Crazy, Stupid, Love $19.3 million in its first weekend at 3,020 theaters. $6,391 theater average. Domestic total: $19.3 million.

6. Friends With Benefits (Sony/Screen Gems) $9.3 million down 50% in its second weekend at 2,926 theaters. $3,178 theater average. Domestic total: $38.2 million.

7. Horrible Bosses (WB/New Line) $7.1 million down 40% in its fourth weekend at 2,510 theaters. $2,829 theater average. Domestic total: $96.2 million.

8. Transformers: Dark of the Moon $5.97 million down 50% in its fifth weekend at 2,604 theaters. $2,293 theater average. Domestic total: $337.9 million.

9. Zookeeper (Sony/MGM) $4.2 million down 52% in its fourth weekend at 2,418 theaters. $1,737 theater average. Domestic total: $68.7 million.

10. Cars 2 (Disney) $2.3 million down 59% in its sixth weekend at 1,763 theaters. $1,305 theater average. Domestic total: $182.1 million.