'The Happening' outperforms expectations

The weekend box office once again wowed as Marvel Studios and Universal’s refitted “The Incredible Hulk” saw lots of green with a bulky $54.5 million domestic opening, and M. Night Shyamalan’s R-rated “The Happening” outperformed expectations in grossing an estimated $30.5 million for 20th Century Fox.

Overseas, “Happening” narrowly beat “Incredible Hulk” in grossing an estimated $32.1 million from 5,714 runs. “Incredible Hulk,” playing in far fewer locations, grossed $31 million from 3,165. In many individual territories, the superhero pic won out.

“Incredible Hulk,” playing in 3,505 theaters, easily came in No. 1 domestically. It nabbed the best opening gross for Father’s Day weekend after last year’s “Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer” ($58 million) and marks another victory for Marvel, home studio of “Iron Man.”

U and Marvel say they have succeeded in rebooting the “Incredible Hulk” franchise with Edward Norton in the lead, even if the film didn’t open as big domestically as Ang Lee’s “Hulk” did in June 2003 ($62.1 million).

In North America, the overall box office was up an impressive 24% on the strength of “Incredible Hulk” and “Happening,” which defied all predictions in its bow to come in at No. 3 despite dismal notices. Opening for the pic, toplining Mark Wahlberg and playing in 2,986, is a needed victory for Shyamalan, whose last film, “Lady in the Water,” drowned at the box office in summer 2006.

Fox aggressively marketed “The Happening” as the only happening thing to do on Friday the 13th. It worked. Movie racked up the second-best June bow for an R-rated pic after last year’s “Knocked Up” ($30.7 million).

The weekend was notable for other reasons as well.

DreamWorks Animation and Paramount’s holdover “King Fu Panda” jumped the $100 million mark in its second weekend to come in at No. 2 overall. Toon declined a slim 41% to an estimated $34.3 million from 4,136; cume is $118 million.

Robert Downey Jr. starrer “Iron Man” — a Marvel Studios pic distributed by Par — all but crossed the $300 million mark at the domestic B.O. Cume hit $297.4 million as the tentpole declined only 31% in its seventh weekend to an estimated $5.1 million from 2,403 runs. “Iron Man” and “Incredible Hulk” were both fully developed, financed and produced by Marvel.

Par’s “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” is nearing the $300 million mark itself, declining 41% in its fourth sesh to an estimated $13.5 million from 3,804 runs. Cume is $275.3 million.

On the comedy side, Sony’s Adam Sandler starrer “You Don’t Mess With the Zohan” was No. 4 for the weekend but fell off more than other pics in the top 10, reflecting the fact that younger men and women had their choice of fare with the entry of “Incredible Hulk” and “Happening.”

“Zohan” declined 57% to an estimated $16.4 million from 3,466. Cume is $68.8 million in its first 10 days.

Chick comedy “Sex and the City” dipped 52% in its third weekend to an estimated $13.5 million from 3,155 for a lusty cume of $119.8 million.

“Incredible Hulk” and “Happening” both ended up recruiting a broad audience. “Incredible Hulk” skewed slightly male at 60%. Some 48% of the aud was under age 25.

Trying to reboot a franchise is always tricky. U and Marvel took it as a good sign that “Incredible Hulk,” directed by Louis Leterrier, opened bigger than Warner Bros.’ “Batman Begins” ($48.7 million). Many had questioned whether it was too soon to try another “Hulk.” Exit polls showed that wasn’t the case, with 82% of the audience having seen the 2003 “Hulk” pic.

“Marvel took what they learned from the first one and made this movie spectacular. It pulverized the naysayers,” Universal prexy of distribution Nikki Rocco said. “And you have to give a lot of kudos to the marketing group.”

Lee’s “Hulk,” which ultimately grossed $132 domestically, was criticized for being too cerebral.

“This has definitely revitalized the Hulk franchise for us,” Marvel Studios chair David Maisel said. “It’s so important for us, and it gives us so many options, because many of our characters connect.”

A hint of future projects featuring multiple Marvel characters is made in “Incredible Hulk” when Downey appears momentarily as “Iron Man” superhero Tony Stark.

“Incredible Hulk” scored a per screen average of $15,560, while “Happening” posted a strong per location average as well at $10,214.

Both films saw marked Friday-to-Saturday drops, with “Happening” falling off a 21% and “Hulk,” 15%. That’s more than usual, even for films that do their best business on Friday.

“Happening” aud was evenly divided between men and women. It skewed a bit younger than “Hulk,” with 52% of the aud under age 25.

Penned by Shyamalan and also starring Zooey Deschanel, “The Happening” is about an epidemic caused by a rebellious environment. Opening is the third best for Shyamalan after “Signs” ($60.1 million) and “The Village” ($50.7 million), and the first R-rated film he has made.

“Night always fascinates, and this movie touched a nerve. It’s an eco-horror film that’s very different,” Fox senior VP of distribution Chris Aronson said.

With a worldwide opening gross of just over $62 million, “Happening” has already covered its production budget of $55 million. Pic was co-financed by Fox, Spyglass and India-based UTV Motion Pictures.

“Incredible Hulk” cost upwards of $135 million to produce.

Arty fare

On the specialty side, Picturehouse’s “Mongol” nabbed the best per screen average of the entire weekend at $21,335. Film grossed an estimated $106,675 from five theaters in its second sesh for a cume of $306,515.

Among new offerings, Werner Herzog’s docu “Encounters at the End of the World,” from ThinkFilm, nabbed a hearty per location average of $17,500 as it grossed an estimated $17,500 from one theater.

Sony Pictures Classics’ “Baghead” grossed an estimated $8,925 for a per screen average of $4,463 as it opened in two theaters in Austin, Texas.

(Dave McNary contributed to this report.)

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