Pic tops trio of newcomers to win third straight frame

A relatively lazy Labor Day weekend at the domestic B.O. still showed enough punch to push summer 2011 totals, at around $4.39 billion, beyond 2009′s summertime record of $4.34 billion. Overseas summer B.O. was more energetic, exceeding last year’s World Cup-affected tally by a sunny 41% for a total of approximately $8.2 billion.

While box office dollars were up in the U.S., admissions continued their downward trajectory, with ticket sales down 1%, or 544 million vs. 550 million in 2010.

But Disney-DreamWorks’ three-time weekend champ, “The Help,” with a domestic cume of $123.4 million, greatly buoyed August B.O.

“The Help,” which improved on Sunday’s weekend projection by $1 million, topped the long holiday frame with an estimated $19 million. The Participant Media film has helped spur the adult market lately, which could be rubbing off on other pics with over 25-appeal. Miramax’s “The Debt,” which distrib Focus Features projected to gross $12.6 million from Friday to Monday, launched on Wednesday with a total $14.5 million.

Both adult-skewing pics kept weekend totals from falling too far behind — down roughly 1% — from Labor Day 2010. (Keep in mind that the holiday typically isn’t a busy time at multiplexes.)

Major franchise titles, led by “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2″ and “Transformers: Dark of the Moon,” did most of the heavy lifting this summer. (Interestingly, 2009′s top two summer slots also were occupied by installments in the “Transformers” and “Potter” franchises.)

Meanwhile, Sony’s “The Smurfs” posted its fourth straight win overseas, collecting $23.3 million through Sunday for a cume of $295.8 million. But narrowing the gap are 20th Century Fox’s “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” with $19.4 million, and Warner Bros.’ “Final Destination 5,” grossing $18.7 million. “Apes” has cumed $186.5 million internationally; “Destination,” $58.3 million in four weeks.

Among the Stateside B.O.’s remaining new entries, the Weinstein Co.’s “Apollo 18″ posted an estimated four-day take of $10.7 million, while Relativity Media’s “Shark Night 3D” decreased slightly from its earlier four-day estimate. Pic grossed $10.3 million through Monday vs. an estimated $10.5 million on Sunday.

Neither pic reps a major financial risk, however. “Apollo 18″ cost somewhere in the low-single digits, according to sources, while “Shark Night” was financed mostly by foreign presales by Incentive Filmed Entertainment and Sierra/Affinity. Relativity acquired U.S. distribution rights and put up P&A.

Focus on Labor Day

Focus Features has carved out a tidy niche on Labor Day weekend, particularly with thrillers targeted at over-35 auds.

Last year, the distrib’s George Clooney-starrer “The American” won the holiday with $16.7 million in four days, while in 2005, “The Constant Gardener” scored a four-day take of almost $11 million. Both pics launched midweek, earning $19.8 million and $12.7 million, respectively, in six days.

“Granted, these aren’t historical numbers, but I think that further camouflages the power of the weekend,” said Focus prexy of theatrical distribution Jack Foley, who added that “The Constant Gardener” cumed four times its opening.

“The Debt,” which Focus acquired following the Disney-Miramax divorce, could grow similar legs with an OK CinemaScore rating of B. The film toplines Helen Mirren and Tom Wilkinson as retired Mossad agents, with Jessica Chastain and Sam Worthington portraying younger versions of those characters in 1966 West Germany.

Foley credited Mirren as a significant box office draw among the film’s targeted adult aud. He also suggested that similar auds of “The Help,” which also stars Chastain, were inclined to see “The Debt” because of her.

Under-25′s stay home

Both “Apollo 18″ and “Shark Night” competed for a younger demo that has recently seemed indifferent to summer releases.

The debut pair did attract a good portion of over-25 auds (“Apollo 18″ had 44%; “Shark Night,” 43%).

“I wish (the opening gross) was more,” said Weinstein Co. prexy of theatrical distribution Erik Lomis. “But going in, I thought we’d get between $10 million and $12 million, so we’re happy with this.”

“Shark Night” wasn’t able to hook much interest — even with 86% of its opening from its 90% of total locations in 3D.

Under-18 auds gave “Shark Night” a so-so B- CinemaScore rating, while overall auds were even less enthusiastic, giving the film a C. “Apollo 18″ did worse, with a D rating.

Both pics have already set overseas dates in most major markets. For instance, “Shark Night” first bows in France on Sept. 21, followed by the U.K. on Sept. 30. “Apollo 18″ launched this weekend in Russia, Blighty and Brazil, though the pic’s foreign grosses weren’t available on Monday.

Meanwhile, “The Debt” launched earlier this summer via Universal Intl. in Russia, France and Switzerland, with a cume of $2 million.

Lukewarm holiday specials

IFC saw good attendance for Kristin Scott Thomas starrer French thriller “Love Crime,” which bowed at five U.S. engagements for a per-screen average of $10,500. In four days, the film tallied an estimated $52,500, with plans to expand to 25 additional markets in September.

Less good, however, was Samuel Goldwyn’s broad release of “A Good Old Fashioned Orgy,” averaging just $1,068 from 143 screens. Pic earned a soft $152,724 through Monday.

Lionsgate’s “Saving Private Perez,” being released through the distrib’s Latino-targeted label Pantelion, did better than “Orgy” in its aggressive (but still limited) rollout. “Perez,” which opened at 161 playdates, averaged $5,155 per screen for a long-weekend total of roughly $830,000.

Holiday domestic B.O. figures:

Film / Distributor / Four-day estimate / Locations

1) “The Help” (Disney) — $19.0 million; 2,843

2) “The Debt” (Focus) — $12.6 million; 1,826

3) “Apollo 18″ (Weinstein Co.) — $10.7 million; 3,328

4) “Shark Night 3D” (Relativity) — $10.3 million; 2,806

5) “Rise of the Planet of the Apes (Fox) — $10.3 million; 3,193

6) “Colombiana” (Sony) — $9.4 million; 2,614

7) “Our Idiot Brother” (Weinstein Co.) — $7.0 million; 2,555

8) “Spy Kids: All the Time in the World (Weinstein Co.) — $6.6 million; 3,007

9) “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark” (FilmDistrict) — $6.1 million; 2,780

10) “The Smurfs” (Sony) — $5.6 million; 2,706

Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more