Smaller films exceed B.O. expectations

Who needs a special effects-driven tentpole?

Sony enjoyed a summer to remember thanks to a handful of smaller films that exceeded expectations at the box office.

On paper, Columbia Pictures’ slate looked iffy before the frame began, without a “Spider-Man” or “2012” on the horizon. Instead, the studio rolled out five relatively modest bets — “The Karate Kid,” “Grown Ups,” “Salt,” “The Other Guys” and “Eat Pray Love” — all of which opened at No. 1 or No. 2.

Sony chairman of worldwide marketing and distribution Jeff Blake said the tentpole-free strategy was unintentional.

“Obviously, if we had a ‘Spider-Man’ to open, we would have loved to,” he added. “But we didn’t do too bad with the hand we had.”

Sony waited until the second weekend of June before releasing its first pic, a China-set remake of ’80s franchise “The Karate Kid.” The Jaden Smith-Jackie Chan starrer bowed June 11 at No. 1 with $56 million, on its way to a $281 million worldwide haul to date. The pic, which Sony owns everywhere except China, proved to be wildly successful given that it cost less than $40 million.

The ensemble comedy “Grown Ups” took in $41 million during its June 25-27 debut frame for a No. 2 ranking. The pic held well domestically (for a $158 million total Stateside) and bucked the comedy trend by generating business internationally ($50 million to date).

The studio’s biggest gamble, the $110 million spy thriller “Salt,” will likely wind up Sony’s biggest foreign performer and is expected to earn $200 million overseas alone. The Angelina Jolie starrer, which famously was developed as a Tom Cruise vehicle, has opened in just 48 markets abroad, where its cume sits at $83 million, for a $186.7 million worldwide tally to-date.

“We were given a great slate to work with this summer, so the credit really goes to (Col presidents) Doug Belgrad and Matt Tolmach and (Sony topper) Amy Pascal,” said Blake. “When every other studio was running the franchise route, we went a different way. But it’s how these films turned out that was important. Did they satisfy their intended audiences? Yes.”

But Belgrad was quick to spread the love around.

“I’ll give the credit right back to the marketing department because they did a kick-ass job on every one of these movies,” he said.

The summer proved tricky for every studio other than Sony, with each of the five other majors enduring at least one film that opened below expectations: Disney’s “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” Universal’s “MacGruber,” Warner Bros.’ “Jonah Hex,” Fox’s “Knight and Day” and Paramount’s “Dinner for Schmucks.”

But two late-summer releases are keeping Sony’s hot summer streak intact. The Will Ferrell-Mark Wahlberg buddy comedy “The Other Guys” opened Aug. 6 at No. 1 with $36 million and is showing legs, earning $70 million in its first 10 days.

And the Julia Roberts starrer “Eat Pray Love” opened this weekend at No. 2, nabbing about $24 million in its debut frame.

“This has been such a great summer for us, with ‘Salt’ crossing $100 million, a solid hold for ‘The Other Guys’ and another successful opening (with ‘Eat Pray Love’),” said Sony prexy of worldwide distribution Rory Bruer. “In a summer that’s had its ups and downs, we’ve been able to weather it in a very positive way.”

Andrew Stewart contributed to this report.

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