Zac Efron proved there is life after High School Musical. His body-swap comedy 17 Again will earn $24.1 million, according to studio estimates, to top the North American box-office for the first weekend in months when absolutely no one in the all-important 13-24 demographic was on Spring, Passover or Easter Break. (Hence the lowest winning total since late February.)
Last week's top banana, Hannah Montana: The Movie, dropped 60%, to $12.7 million, giving the Disney Channel's tween-dream factory a still-healthy one-four punch for the weekend. Two of the year's solid hits, Fast & Furious and Monsters vs Aliens, took the third and fifth slots. Between them, they have now racked up about $300 million at the domestic wickets, and another $200 million or so abroad.
Battling Mickey's kids and the monsters was Russell Crowe, whose sex-politics-and-espionage thriller State of Play, based on the compulsively-watchable BBC series, took in $14.1 million in its opening weekend. The other new wide release, which will end up sixth overall, was Crank: High Voltage, with B-movie Brit Brillo pad Jason Statham reprising his role from the 2006 Crank as a hit man who'll die if he slows down. Sort of like Speed, only instead of a grimy bus, it's a Limey cuss. Crank 2's haul was a demure $6.5 million.
The three debut films offered a wide choice of leading men winsome Zac, action-toughie Jason and Oscar-man Russell who appeal to three different movie constituencies: tween girls, slightly older males and adults only. The box-office results tell us a bit about who can be counted on to go to the movies to see their favorites.
Efron, carrying a movie for the first time after his featured role in the 2007 Hairspray and his co-fronting of the High School Musical franchise last fall, is on his way to winning his movie-star baccalaureate. In 17 Again a kind of Back to the Future without the DeLorean he plays a despondent 37-year-old man magically returned to his 20-years-younger body. In other words, he goes from being Matthew Perry to being the screaming-teen hottie, not just of his youth, but of young America. Efron, 21, dances, plays basketball and does comedy, romance and a pretty decent crying scene. His core audience came out to see him; but then, for them, attendance this weekend was mandatory. For Efron to have a sure shot at a long career, he has to hope that their older siblings and parents check the movie out too.
Can nice and clean, with a little sex, propel Efron to a star movie career? His template might be Michael J. Fox, whose role in the Back to the Future films vaulted him from the Family Ties comedy series to lead roles in movies. Fox had a decent run for about a decade, but none of his projects, mostly light comedies, came close to matching the clout of the Robert Zemeckis trilogy, and he returned to TV, his more congenial medium, for six years of Spin City. Efron will have to radiate a little more danger if he doesn't want to be the cute young married guy on a CBS sitcom before he's 30.
Statham, 36, was an Olympic diver for the British team, and a model, before appearing in two early Guy Ritchie crime movies a decade ago. Since then, he's established himself in a couple of franchises: Transporter (three films) and Crank (two; but if the grosses stay this stagnant, don't count on a third). He's manfully filled the B-movie action slots once occupied by Jean-Claude Van Damme and Steven Seagal. His movies generally pull first-weekend numbers in the teen-millions and end up in the $25-40 million domestic range not bad for productions that don't cost much. And they often double their North American gross in foreign markets: Transporter 3 made $32 million here, nearly $70 million abroad. So the low number for Crank: High Voltage will slow Statham's momentum, but it won't kill him.
As for Crowe, 45, he's a tabloid scribe's dream, a paparazzo's enemy and the occasional hotel employee's worst nightmare. He's also the rare dramatic actor whose chameleonic intensity has lifted the quality of nearly every film he's been in, ever since Sharon Stone brought him to Hollywood for The Quick and the Dead in 1994. As a compromised cop in L.A. Confidential, a tobacco executive in The Insider, a wily negotiator with South American kidnappers in Proof of Lifeand so many more, Crowe has been able to erase his thuggish public persona the moment he steps on-screen and persuade the viewer that he is the complex character he happens to be playing.
What Crowe is not is a movie star, if that job designation means an irresistible magnet to large numbers of paying customers in a variety of projects. On the cusp of the millennium he toplined two big hits Gladiator and A Beautiful Mind that also won Academy Awards for Best Picture. Since then he's been the lead player in a series of underperformers.
The naval-adventure yarn Master & Commander was meant to launch a franchise but didn't because it couldn't recoup its lavish costs, taking in $95 million in North America on a $150 million budget. The period boxing epic Cinderella Man, reuniting Crowe with Beautiful Mind director Ron Howard, made its expected impact neither at the box office nor with the Academy. Attempting to show his sweet, light side, he teamed with with Gladiator auteur Ridley Scott for the romantic comedy A Good Year; that sad misfire earned just $7.5 million in its entire domestic run less than 17 Again did on its first day.
In the last few years, taking fewer roles to spend time on his Australian farm with his wife and son, Crowe has had mixed results as a box-office lure. American Gangster, where he was second-billed to Denzel Washington, was a hit; Body of Lies, with Crowe supporting Leonardo Di Caprio, was a flop. State of Play (a flat, unenticing title for what means to be a smart, pounding thriller) may have one of those twisty plots that mass audiences think will make their heads hurt; they'll watch it in a few months at home.
And that's the big problem for Crowe, Julia Roberts (Duplicity) George Clooney (Michael Clayton), all of whom have starred in conspiracy dramas written or co-written by Tony Gilroy. They and their films appeal to adults in box-office terms, the all-unimportant 25-to-80 demographic. The theatrical release of their films is just the teaser campaign for the real release: when they're available on Netflix.
The official estimation of the top 10 finishers, as reported by Box Office Mojo:
1. 17 Again, $24.1 million, first weekend
2. State of Play, $14.1 million, first weekend
3. Monsters vs. Aliens, $12.9 million; $162.7 million in 24 days
4. Hannah Montana: The Movie, $12.7 million; $56.1 million in 10 days
5. Fast & Furious, $12.3 million; $136.7 million in 17 days
6. Crank: High Voltage, $6.5 million, first weekend
7. Observe and Report, $4.1 million; $18.7 million in 10 days
8. Knowing, $3.5 million; $73.7 million in 31 days
9. I Love You, Man, $3.4 million; $64.7 million in 31 days
10. The Haunting in Connecticut, $3.2 million; $51.9 million in 24 days