It's unlikely the August slate will push 2011 over last year

Despite winning the weekend, “Cowboys and Aliens” wasn’t the blockbuster many B.O. pundits had expected — and if 2011 is to catch up this summer, it’ll be up to a few remaining August hopefuls.

The weekend’s lively horse race between “Cowboys and Aliens” and “The Smurfs” earned plenty of headlines — Universal’s “Cowboys” ended up barely winning the weekend, with $36.4 million, vs. a better-than-expected $35.6 million for “Smurfs” — but the bigger picture got lost in the dust.

Year-to-date 2011 box office continues to lag at 4% behind last year, though that’s better than at the beginning of summer, when bizzers boldly forecasted summer pics would help boost the 7% dip from the year-earlier period.

But while upcoming titles like “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” or “Conan the Barbarian” could still perform strongly, it’s unlikely that the remaining summer pics will be able to lift this year’s overall domestic box office to match or beat that of 2010: Tentpoles taper off by August, so they would have to produce truly surprising results to turn around the B.O.

The year’s totals steadily gained ground this summer, but B.O. continues to trail last year by $283.5 million. To put it in perspective, it would take another hit the size of “The Hangover Part II,” with its domestic gross of $253 million, to make up that amount.

Also, box office last year tallied roughly $986 million from Aug. 1 through Labor Day weekend, with top performers like Sony’s “The Other Guys” and Lionsgate’s “The Expendables.” That means if overall 2011 B.O. is to surpass last year by Labor Day, the remaining summer slate and holdovers will have to earn just shy of $1.27 billion.

Still, summer box office has been robust so far.

As of July 28, summer box office (from May 6) was ahead 3% of the comparable period in 2010. Now, summer totals are up 3.9% thanks to a 22% hike in box office through Sunday.

Despite its win, “Cowboys,” with a reported $163 million budget (not including P&A costs), should have made more. As one B.O. pundit said, “It just didn’t penetrate interest levels the way a big-budgeted movie like that should have.”

Sony’s live action-toon hybrid “Smurfs” overperformed all expectations, helped by 45% of ticket sales from 3D.

This past weekend’s “Cowboys” and “Smurfs,” along with holdovers “Captain America: The First Avenger” and “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2,” beat last year’s “Inception,” “Dinner for Schmucks” and “Salt” — none of which crossed $30 million for the weekend.

If each weekend from now through the end of summer can perform similarly, then summer could end up righting an off year. That’s a tall order — but not impossible.

The remaining summer releases will need to gain ground with under-25 auds and not just rely on adult support in the manner of “Cowboys,” “Smurfs” and “Crazy Stupid Love.”

In the case of “Smurfs,” families accounted for 65% of the opening aud, of which 40% were parents. “Cowboys” skewed mostly toward adult moviegoers, with 63% of its opening aud over 30, while 71% of “Crazy Stupid Love” moviegoers were over 25.

It came down to Sunday grosses to break the tie between “Cowboys” and “Smurfs.” And while both pics appealed to reliable Sunday audiences of adults and families, “Smurfs” had the advantage appealing to both. In the end, however, “Cowboys” likely drew a larger-than-expected portion of over-25 auds.

“Crazy Stupid Love,” from Warner Bros., came in with a revised $19.1 million, down slightly from the pic’s estimated weekend debut of $19.3 million.

Upcoming pics with potential under-25 appeal include a pair of horror-thrillers, New Line’s “Final Destination 5″ on Aug. 12 and FilmDistrict’s “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark” on Aug. 26, as well as retreads “Conan,” from Lionsgate on Aug. 19, and Fox’s “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” which bows Friday.

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