Sony films beat expectations to help end four-week B.O. slump

Sony injected much-needed life — and then some — back into the domestic box office as family newcomer “Hotel Transylvania” scored the best-ever September debut, estimated at $43 million — though mostly from 2D. The adult half of the studio’s weekend counterprogramming double bill, “Looper,” also overperformed with $21.2 million domestically.

The recent sluggish marketplace created more modest expectations for “Transylvania” of about $30 million. It’s worth noting, however, that some observers were more bullish early last week, predicting the 3D toon could hit north of $40 million.

” ‘Hotel Transylvania’ has been a labor of love for our studio,” said Sony worldwide distribution topper Rory Bruer, who praised the efforts of the studio’s marketing and distribution teams. “To have that kind of opening really gives you an idea of just how broadly the film is playing. And in September? I mean, come on!”

Weekend B.O. outpaced this time last year by a commanding 24%; totals were up 33% over last weekend.

And thanks to the one-two punch of “Transylvania” and “Looper” this weekend, Sony moved into first place in year-to-date domestic market share, with $1.28 billion vs. $1.25 billion for Warner Bros.

The opening Stateside success of “Looper” is mostly gravy: Early estimates indicate the film earned $31 million internationally, which includes $24 million at the Chinese B.O. That makes “Looper” the first day-and-date release to earn more in China than in the U.S. opening weekend. Still, there are only a handful of non-tentpoles ever to have bowed day-and-date with the U.S. in China (local release dates are selected by China Film).

Back in the States, Universal had boffo success with its week-early limited bow of “Pitch Perfect,” grossing $5.2 million from just 335 locations. Fox’s “Won’t Back Down,” meanwhile, tallied a forgettable $2.7 million from 2,515, though the B.O. weekend uplift could mean stronger mid-week biz for the pic.

U domestic distribution prexy Nikki Rocco admits the jury is still out for “Pitch,” saying, “We love that our strategy has worked thus far, but we’re still in unproven territory. The success will be determined next weekend with the film’s wide expansion.”

While the domestic B.O.’s four-week losing streak was expected to end this weekend, the better-than-expected results now provide a much better springboard for upcoming fare, led by next weekend’s wide trio — Disney’s “Frankenweenie,” Fox’s “Taken 2″ and “Pitch Perfect.”

Specialty players continued to pull down solid figures as well: Summit’s “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” expanded to 102 locations, grossing $1.1 million for a 10-day cume of $1.5 million. The Weinstein Co.’s “The Master,” at 856, lifted its Stateside tally to $9.6 million, after an estimated $2.7 million in its third frame.

‘Hotel’ with 3D vacancy

“Hotel Transylvania,” the eighth Sony pic to debut at No. 1 this year, not only saw the best-ever September opening but scored the only $40 million debut this month. The previous September benchmark was set by “Sweet Home Alabama” with $35.6 million in 2002. Toon also surpassed “The Smurfs” ($35.6 million) to score the biggest opening for Sony Animation.

With 3D contributing 33%-35%, “Transylvania” stands to have the lowest-ever opening 3D take for an animated feature (Disney-Pixar’s “Brave” earned just 34% of its opening from 3D).

Sony’s Bruer acknowledged the difficulty in nailing down a precise 3D percentage, however. “Because of digital, you have some screens that are showing both 2D and 3D,” he said. It’s really hard to capture a true picture,”

Still, Bruer said “Transylvania” wasn’t necessarily marketed as a 3D event — a must-do nowadays for 3D family films.

U’s “The Lorax” scored this year’s highest opening 3D share for an original animated film, at 52%. Paramount-DreamWorks Animation’s “Madagascar 3″ debuted this summer with 45% from 3D, followed by another steep drop with “Brave” and Fox’s “Ice Age: Continental Drift,” at 35%. “Frankenweenie” will be tested next in 3D (though that pic has Imax), with Disney’s “Wreck-It Ralph” and Par-DWA’s “Rise of the Guardians” in November.

The underwhelming 3D turnout for “Transylvania” underscores the film’s 2D popularity this weekend. Pic, which cost $85 million, drew nearly a quarter of its audience from non-families, with an overall A- CinemaScore rating.

“Looper,” which stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Bruce Willis, earned the majority of its domestic opening from men over 25. The film was made for a reported $30 million, with producer Endgame paying half of the film’s P&A costs.

Endgame CEO Jim Stern said “Looper” is the kind of film his company should be backing. “I came from doing larger commercial product, and it’s been my goal to shift this company toward those films,” Stern noted. FilmDistrict acquired domestic rights to the film at last year’s Cannes, with Sony’s TriStar label handling Stateside distribution.

In addition to China, “Looper” debuted well (via local distribs) in Russia, with an estimated $4.5 million, as well as in the U.K. and Australia, contributing $3.6 million and $2.9 million, respectively.

O’seas toon record to ‘Drift’

With its $7.8 million No. 1 opening in Italy (which reps half of the local market share), “Ice Age: Continental Drift” reached a whopping $693.9 million internationally to become the highest-grossing animated release ever overseas. Toon surpassed its 2009 predecessor “Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs” at $693 million. “Drift” also ranks as the eighth-highest release of all time internationally.

The toon has been gliding along overseas for more than three months, with massive results in countries like Germany ($63.3 million) and France ($54.2 million).

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