By Anne Thompson | Thompson on Hollywood September 19, 2010 at 2:17AM
With The Town, Ben Affleck proves that he can open a movie--if he directs it. Not only did the Warner/Legendary movie score with critics at Venice and Toronto fests (earning a remarkable 93% on the Tomatometer) but it beat out the weekend boxoffice competition with a $23.8 million estimate. That's a big leap from advance tracking predicting a $15-million opener.
Affleck set out to improve on his debut feature Gone Baby Gone (a success d'estime) with a modestly-budgeted R-rated genre crowd-pleaser. He cast himself and Oscar-nominee Jeremy Renner as two Boston robbers, rising actress Rebecca Hall as his love interest, and TV stars Jon Hamm and Blake Lively in surprising turns as an FBI agent and drug-addled single mom, respectively. Cinemascore is B+; the movie played best for men, 55% gave it an A-. "It's the largest September opening in the history of Warner Bros.," declares distribution chief Dan Fellman, who carefully chose a date in less-competitive September in order to build support for the film "and carry us into the award season." (My flip cam interview with Affleck is here.)
The Town reminds that when a canny movie star (read: Gibson, Redford, Eastwood, Costner, Beatty) takes the directing reins (remember, Affleck and Matt Damon jump-started their acting careers when they won screenwriting Oscars for Good Will Hunting), it often yields higher quality control than your average actor-for-hire studio gig. The good news for Affleck: he may have to do it again. The bad news: it's a lot more work.
Also bolstered by upbeat reviews and a Toronto launch was $8-million high school comedy Easy A, with $18.2 million, starring breakout actress Emma Stone (Zombieland). Not surprisingly, the PG-13 laugher played best with teens (49% under 18) and women (67%), but Sony --which is commanding an astonishing 50 % of the box office with four movies--hopes that with an A- Cinemascore, WOM will broaden out the demo in succeeding weeks. It's a good sign that the movie improved from Friday to Saturday. Screen Gems marketed the pic as a laugh riot: that and strong reviews propelled a high-concept movie--a contemporary teen Hester Prynne-- with no marquee stars into second place.
M. Night Shyamalan may not be the best way to brand a movie these days, judging from the poor third-place showing of claustrophobic supernatural horror flick Devil, which came in on the low side of expectations with an estimated $12.6 million. Universal acquired worldwide rights from MRC for $27 million; the thriller debuted in seven international markets for an estimated $2.3 million. MRC had banked on a three-part franchise based on three Shyamalan-conceived The Night Chronicles stories to be written and directed by young filmmakers on modest budgets. That may not happen.
The film's looking at a downward b.o. trajectory, as the Cinemascore was a dismal C+. These numbers may give Lionsgate pause, as upcoming Buried, which played well at Toronto, also traps audiences in a tight place--not an elevator but a coffin. Critics will help boost that Ryan Reynolds flick.
It looks like Eat Pray Love won't get past $80 million domestic, which means that despite much harping, with a $95 million domestic total, Sex and the City 2 outperformed the Julia Roberts starrer. Sony reminds that Eat Pray Love was always seen as a global play, and is just starting to roll out into international markets.
Box Office Top Ten Chart:
1. The Town (Warner Bros.): $23.8 million in its first weekend at ) 2,861 theaters. $8318 theater average. Domestic total: $23.8 million.
2. Easy A (Sony/Screen Gems): $18.2 million in its first weekend in 2,856 theaters. $6373 theater average. Domestic total: $18.2 million.
3. Devil (Universal/Relativity): $12.6 million in its first weekend in 2809 theaters. $4,480 per theater average. Domestic total: $12.6 million.
4. Resident Evil: Afterlife 3D (Sony/Screen Gems): $10.1 million down 62% in its second weekend at 3,209 theaters. $3147 theater average. Domestic total: $43.9 million.
5. Alpha and Omega (Lionsgate): $9.2 million in its first weekend at 2625 theaters. $3504 theater average. Domestic total: $9.2 million.
6. Takers (Sony/Screen Gems): $3 million down 47% in its fourth weekend at 2,139 theaters. $1402 theater average. Domestic total: $52.3 million.
7. The American (Focus Features): $2.7 million down 51% in its third weekend at 2,457 theaters. $1122 theater average. Domestic total: $32.8 million.
8. Inception (Warner Bros.): $2 million down 28% in its tenth weekend at 1,305 theaters. $1544 theater average. Domestic total: $285.2 million.
9. The Other Guys (Sony): $2 million down 40% in its seventh weekend at 1,827 theaters. $1095 theater average. Domestic total: $115.4 million.
10. Eat Pray Love (Sony): $1.7 million down 42% in its sixth weekend at 1668 theaters. $1240 theater average. Domestic total: $77.7 million.
10. Machete (Fox): $1.7 million down 60% in its fourth weekend at 1704 theaters. $755,000 theater average. Domestic total: $24 million.