Sales down roughly 20% from 2010; 'Help' stays strong

The last few weekends of summer are typically sluggish at the domestic box office, but Hurricane Irene battered B.O. totals even more, with upwards of 1,000 theater closings on the East Coast causing figures to dip 20%-25% from the same frame in 2010.

An estimated $25 million in Stateside box office was lost due to the hurricane.

International box office, however, was much sunnier as Sony’s “The Smurfs” won for its third consecutive week, posting $25.5 million, while 20th Century Fox’s “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” and Warner Bros.’ “Final Destination 5″ followed closely with $22.1 million and $21 million, respectively. “Smurfs” has cumed $256 million overseas; “Apes,” $158.5 million.

Despite the storm’s effect on East Coast B.O. (most theaters in Manhattan and the New York tristate area were closed), Disney-DreamWorks’ “The Help” managed a strong hold to lead the pack: It was down just 28% to gross an estimated $14.3 million. Stateside cume is $96.6 million.

“The Help” beat a trio of newcomers, led by Sony’s femme-assassin thriller “Colombiana,” which grossed an estimated $10.3 million. FilmDistrict’s horror entry, “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark,” nabbed an estimated $8.7 million, while the Weinstein Co.’s R-rated comedy “Our Idiot Brother” rounded out the top five with $6.6 million.

Down 46% in its fourth frame, Fox’s “Apes” jockeyed for third place with “Dark,” grossing $8.7 million for a cume of $148.5 million domestically.

None of the weekend’s new entries were expected to make much of a splash — at least not enough to keep up with last year’s north-of-$20 million bows for “Takers” and “The Last Exorcism.”

Still, Hurricane Irene (downgraded on Sunday to a tropical storm) most likely hit the weekend’s specialty titles hardest.

Sony Pictures Classics bowed Vera Farmiga-helmed “Higher Ground” at three locations, two of which were in Manhattan. Pic still managed an upbeat weekend take of $22,905 and a per-screen average of $7,635, but SPC estimated it would have made another $20,000 in better weather.

New York alone makes up 6% of the nation’s box office, meaning all releases, not just specialty pics, were impacted by the hurricane.

Of the wide releases, “Our Idiot Brother” was likely affected most, with 70% of the film’s gross from adults over 25. Adult auds aren’t as likely to go out and face the weather, said Weinstein distribution prexy Erik Lomis. “You can’t factor in something like this.”

What’s more, “Brother’s” top theater on Friday was New York’s Union Square, which closed on Saturday. East Coast auds also rated the pic strongest according to exit polls on opening day.

Bob Berney, prexy of theatrical distribution at FilmDistrict, said of “Dark”: “Our key large urban East Coast markets were really killed, and many theaters closed or were dead even if they remained open. I went to Ridge Hill in Westchester County, N.Y., for the 7:30 shows, and even though it was open, there were only about 25 brave people in the entire complex.”

‘Help’ weathers storm

While most East Coast moviegoers stayed home this weekend, auds in the L.A. area and elsewhere likely visited plexes to beat the heat.

“I think the weather worked to our benefit on the other end of the country,” said Dave Hollis, Disney exec VP of motion pictures sales and distribution. He added about “The Help’s” hold: “Without a storm, 28% still would have been a great drop.”

Staying at No. 1 for its second straight week, “The Help” became a rare example of a film that didn’t open in first place but stayed on top for two or more consecutive holdover frames. Other such pics include “The Blind Side” and “True Grit,” though neither of those held at No. 1 for more than one weekend.

Future performance of “Our Idiot Brother” and “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark” is uncertain, since neither film received a strong CinemaScore rating. “Brother” was rated C+, while “Dark” garnered a C- rating. But “Brother” could make up some ground in New York next weekend given the film’s positive reactions there on Friday.

“Colombiana,” which Sony acquired as a service deal for EuropaCorp, played best with auds, scoring an overall A- CinemaScore rating.

Directed by Olivier Megaton, the film stars Zoe Saldana as an assassin looking to avenge the death of her parents. Pic saw a relatively even split among the demos, with 57% women and 65% over-25 auds.

“With that sort of demo breakdown, I think the picture should really hold in well,” said Sony distribution topper Rory Bruer.

Among the weekend’s holdovers, last weekend’s disappointing openers fell considerably in their second outing.

The Weinstein Co.’s “Spy Kids: All the Time in the World” held best, down 51%, while “Fright Night,” from Disney-DreamWorks, dropped 63% and Lionsgate’s “Conan the Barbarian” fell even further at 69%. Focus Features’ “One Day,” which fell from the top 10, grossed $2.4 million for an OK drop of 53%.

Nice-enough niche players

Specialty launches included “Higher Ground” and Roadside Attractions’ Iranian gay-themed drama “Circumstance,” which launched in four L.A. theaters, where the film averaged $9,400 per screen, as well in three New York locations — the Eleanor Bunin, the Sunshine and the Squire in Great Neck. On Friday, the film grossed $5,985 from those three locations, but even Friday’s take was significantly deflated. As with “Higher Ground,” none of the New York locations for “Circumstance” were open on Saturday or Sunday.

Son Pictures Classics also expanded “Midnight in Paris” to 652 engagements, up from 258 last weekend. Pic grossed a soft estimated $741,054 through Sunday but has cumed a stellar $51.6 million domestically.

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