Trio of new pics deliver solid, not great, perfs

With four films grossing north of $20 million, including Liam Neeson actioner “Unknown” out front, the usually brisk Presidents Day weekend marketplace showed lots of breadth but little depth, lacking the breakout hit to pull the domestic box office out of its funk.

Neeson’s emerging cred as an action hero lured a decidedly older crowd to “Unknown,” which took in a revised estimated $25.6 million from 3,043 locations through Monday, outrunning Warners’ mid- to high-teens projections. Auds skewed overwhelmingly over 25 (84%), and the over-50 crowd contributed 54% of the weekend gross.

Younger moviegoers were scarce, and the Presidents Day weekend was down approximately 31% from 2010. Still, studios were upbeat about so many films climbing into the $20 million-range, even though most struggled to pop with auds outside their targeted demos.

“What was it about this weekend that didn’t ignite?” one distrib exec questioned. DreamWorks’ “I Am Number Four,” with Disney distribbing, also played more to adult auds, despite expectations of appealing to under-25 femmes.

Higher teenage turnout would have helped “Four,” which came in third for the four days with an estimated $22.6 million from 3,154 engagements, including 229 in Imax, which contributed just north of $3 million — or 14% — of the weekend gross from 7% of the total runs.

“Four” bowed behind Disney’s 3D toon “Gnomeo and Juliet,” the only family film in the market, which was boosted Monday by the school holiday for an estimated four-day gross of $24.8 million from 3,014 locations. Cume stands at $55.8 million after two weeks of U.S. playtime.

The weekend’s other wide release, 20th Century Fox’s “Big Mommas: Like Father, Like Son,” landed in the No. 5 spot with $19 million, behind a solid hold from Sony’s soph player “Just Go With It,” which grossed $21.7 million and stands at a $64.3 million cume.

Paramount’s “Justin Bieber: Never Say Never” — also in its second frame — fell 55% with an estimated $16.5 million through Monday, on par with similar concert fare. 3D pic has cumed $51.4 million. Par will release a director’s cut version with 40 minutes of additional footage in a one-week run, starting Friday in 3D-only runs.

Meanwhile, the Weinstein Co.’s boffo Oscar-nommed “The King’s Speech” was off just 10% in its 13th week. TWC is estimating $7.9 million gross over four days, lifting its domestic cume to $104.6 million. That puts it above Fox Searchlight’s “Black Swan,” with a total $101.8 million after the long weekend.

In its second week, Searchlight broadened specialty laffer “Cedar Rapids” to 102 locations, up from 15 last weekend, with an estimated four-day gross of $1.1 million and averaging $10,717 per-screen. The weekend take bodes well for the film as it looks to expand in coming weeks.

Sony Pictures Classics also expanded limited release “Barney’s Version” to 281 runs, scoring a so-so per-screen average of $2,803 for a weekend total of $787,745.

Rainy weather in L.A. dampened Friday and Saturday grosses, while snow throughout the Midwest and East Coast hit the multiplexes hard during the long weekend’s latter half.

Studio distrib exec Dan Fellman said “Unknown’s” core audience was driven by Neeson, who hit it big in 2009 with Fox’s “Taken,” which grossed $215 million worldwide. In fact, Warners hinged “Unknown’s” marketing on appeal for Neeson’s new vengeful action-hero bit.

“We’re thrilled to be in business with him,” Fellman noted. “He brings something to the plate that no one’s really doing now; he’s the everyman.”

Fellman said the film could skew younger in the coming weeks, based on word-of-mouth and strong exits. Pic, which cost a studio-reported $30 million and was rated PG-13, received a B+ CinemaScore rating, a solid appraisal since adults typically are harder to impress.

Like “Unknown,” both “I Am Number Four” and “Big Mommas” received B+ ratings, though “Four” scored better (an A-) with auds under 25. “Four” saw slightly higher auds with those over 25, with 54%, and a 57%-43% male-female split. The film’s higher male turnout was a surprise to Disney, since more femmes were expected to be drawn to star Alex Pettyfer.

Based on the sci-fi book series by James Frey and Jobie Hughes (under the name Pittacus Lore), “Four” marks the first DreamWorks release under the Disney-Touchstone Pictures distribution deal. DreamWorks bought rights to the book in June 2009, with producer Michael Bay boarding the project shortly after.

As of now, the film’s modest opening doesn’t bode well for the Mouse’s franchise hopes, but “Four” could gain steam in the coming weeks both domestically and abroad. “Four” bowed day and date this weekend in eight overseas territories, including Italy, with an estimated $3.3 million.

Fox segued its Martin Lawrence-“Big Momma” franchise to include the title character’s stepson, played by Brandon T. Jackson, both of whom portray undercover cops dressed as women, who try to infiltrate an all-girls performing arts school.

“Big Mommas” played mostly to women, with 60%, and saw a similar turnout from African-American auds. Pic saw a sizeable Friday-Saturday jump, up 47%, which Fox senior VP of domestic distribution Bert Livingston noted as a hopeful sign for continued growth. “I think the playability is there, because you can’t go up like that on Saturday and not have legs,” he said.

Fox launched “Big Mommas” internationally with an estimated $4.2 million from 10 markets. Pic’s biggest contributor was the U.K., where it grossed $2.4 million on 380 screens; Australian auds shelled out slightly less than $1 million on 185.

But it was Searchlight’s “Black Swan” that claimed the overseas crown for its second straight weekend, earning an estimated $17.2 million for an international cume of nearly $98 million. “Black Swan” opened tops in Spain with $3 million, while at the Italo B.O., the film bowed at No. 3 with a hearty $1.4 million.

Another notable overseas player was Universal’s early U.K. launch of “Paul,” which scored a top-notch $9.2 million perf, including previews. The Simon Pegg-starrer, bowing Stateside on March 18, now stands as Blighty’s third-best 2011 opening, behind “Tangled” and “The King’s Speech.”

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