To win a summer weekend, a movie usually needs a star name or an action-film punch, or it needs to be a sequel to or the remake of a blockbuster. Except, that is, for new Pixar releases. Rising on the propulsion of a brand name known for quality entertainment, the studio's 10th animated feature, Up, surpassed most predictions by earning $68.2 million this weekend, according to official projections. Buoyed by higher ticket prices in theaters showing the 3-D version and rhapsodic reviews that tallied a 98% positive rating on Rotten Tomatoes, Up scored the strongest Pixar opening since The Incredibles in 2004. (See Corliss's picks for the top 10 Pixar voice-over artists.)
The other debut film, the gypsy-curse shocker Drag Me to Hell, looks to come in an O.K. third, with $16.6 million. Like Up, it's a film with no stars, but a star director of sorts: Sam Raimi, who did the Spider-Man movies and, ages ago, the Evil Dead cult trilogy. Credit Drag Me to Hell's success to a generous PG-13 rating and to the loyalty of genre fans who haven't been able to go to a new horror film in, gee, almost two months. (See TIME's video "Making Drag Me to Hell More Hellish.")
Last week's chart topper, Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian, lost about 53% of its steam, coming in second with a still decent $25.5 million. Smithsonian did what sequels often do: pull a great first weekend from brand recognition, then subside more severely than the original. That's the rule to which there are few exceptions. The current exception, Star Trek, was the only one of the session's top six holdovers to drop less than 50% from last week, enabling it to become the first 2009 release to cross the $200 million mark at the North American box office.
News was not so good for Terminator Salvation, which lost a steep 62% from last weekend's gross. This fourth episode in the John Connor saga could trace the sorry trajectory of this March's action film, Watchmen, which earned more than half its total domestic take in its first weekend. In plain English, that means the hard-core fans saw it immediately but didn't go back or convince others to buy tickets. It also suggests that certain action franchises do need a star. Given the tarnished fiscal state of the Golden State, Arnold Schwarzenegger may wish he were a movie star again. Indeed, he's spoken of getting back into films after his term is up. Big question for Californians: Would you want Arnold back as the Terminator if you had to take Christian Bale as governor?
Ed Asner, who voiced the main character in Up, has a gruff side that can't match Bale's, at least as expressed in Bale's obscene, YouTubed rant on the set of Terminator Salvation. But he wasn't the lead in last year's top-grossing film, The Dark Knight, either. That's Pixar for you. Unlike its rival, DreamWorks, the studio doesn't sell its movies with star voices. And the films' plots? At a typical Hollywood pitch meeting, the story of a rat let loose in a French restaurant (Ratatouille, 2007) or a lonely robot trash collector (last year's WALL-E) or, this time, a cranky old guy who won't leave his house would be greeted by stony silence. Even the crickets would walk out. Somehow, though, people know that a Pixar movie is worth seeing, worth paying for.
So Up will warm the hearts of the vast public and, perhaps, of the Motion Picture Academy members; a Pixar film has taken the Oscar for Best Animated Feature in four of the past six years. (And in one of the two years it didn't win, it didn't release a film.) Pixar movies are not, however, the mammoth generators of box-office revenue that they used to be. The 2003 Finding Nemo earned $867 million worldwide still tops for a Pixar feature on a reported $94 million budget. WALL-E, which cost about twice as much to make, took in about 40% less. In worldwide ticket sales, the 1995 Toy Story, the studio's first feature, made more than 10 times its budget; WALL-E, about three times.
What keeps companies investing in animation and makes the genre the most reliable in today's market is the fact that cartoon features tend to do terrific business worldwide. (Action films with little talk also hit it big in foreign climes; language-dependent American comedies usually tank.) Box-office reports focus narrowly on the Sunday numbers in U.S. and Canadian theaters. But euros and rupees and yen are good money too, and sometimes movies that aren't quite blockbusters in North America make the bulk of their gross abroad.
Of the 2009 releases, the three top worldwide winners are Monsters vs Aliens, Fast & Furious and X-Men Origins: Wolverine, all of which have exceeded $300 million thus far. Can you guess which of the late-2008 releases have earned about $250 million? Gran Torino and Marley & Me. As for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, it added $205 million offshore for a total of $332.6 million. And the top-grossing film worldwide since last fall, with $352.8 million: that little runt of an Anglo-Indie charmer, Slumdog Millionaire. It's like a Pixar movie, without the pixels.
The official weekend estimates, from Box Office Mojo:
1. Up, $68.2 million, first weekend
2. Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian, $25.5 million; $105.3 million, second week
3. Drag Me to Hell, $16.6 million, first weekend
4. Terminator Salvation, $16.1 million; $90.7 million, second week
5. Star Trek, $12.8 million; $209.5 million, fourth week
6. Angels & Demons, $11.2 million; $104.8 million, third week
7. Dance Flick, $4.9 million; $19.2 million, second week
8. X-Men Origins: Wolverine, $3.9 million; $170.9 million, fifth week
9. Ghosts of Girlfriends Past, $1.9 million; $50 million, fifth week
10. Obsessed, $665,000; $67.5 million, sixth week