On Father's Day weekend, while dads were playing catch with their sons and preparing the backyard barbecue, women rushed to theaters to see a romantic comedy with a female star. The Proposal, with Sandra Bullock as a Canadian publishing exec who must marry her harried male assistant in order to stay in the U.S., whacked the opposition and topped the North American box office. In doing so, it outran the industry swamis' predictions, confounded movie critics (like this one) who thought it was simply more Bullock mediocrity and showed that teenage guys don't determine every big hit; 63% of The Proposal's early audience was female.
After several weekends with two or three movies bunched near the top, here was a winner that won't be overturned in the recount. It earned $34.1 million, according to early studio estimates, and beat out the second-place finisher, The Hangover, by more than $7 million, and the weekend's other new movie, the Jack BlackMichael Cera prehistoric comedy Year One, by about $14 million. Bullock's first No. 1 movie in a decade (since Forces of Nature), it nearly doubled her previous personal-best opening (the 2007 Premonition, at $17.6 million).
Audiences still haven't shaken The Hangover, which had been the box-office champ the previous two weeks. The drugged-and-toothless-in-Vegas farce saw its weekend take drop 18%, but having earned $152.9 million at the domestic wickets, this guy movie has already passed the global theatrical gross of the last huge R-rated comedy, Sex and the City (girl movie).
Studio CEOs, and especially CFOs, will note that the past three winning movies were made for peanuts, with weekend grosses that were greater or nearly as much as their respective budgets; The Hangover cost $35 million to produce, The Proposal $40 million. By next weekend, the Bullock film should outearn the Denzel WashingtonJohn Travolta thriller, The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3, whose budget was about $100 million. By then Bullock's film will also exceed the theatrical earnings of Duplicity, the comeback film of Julia Roberts, Bullock's main rival over the past 15 years as Hollywood's (token) star actress.
If The Proposal has demonstrated that a movie doesn't need two stars to be a hit, The Hangover proved it doesn't need any. Same with the starless Up (sorry, all you Ed Asner fans), which in its fourth weekend amassed another $21.3 million, for a domestic total thus far of $224.1 million. In no time Pixar's alter-kocker comedy will pass Star Trek, yet another no-star wonder, as the year's top-grossing film until, that is, the Transformers or Harry Potter sequels overtake it. See a trend, folks? Stars don't sell movies; brands, genres and word-of-mouth sell movies.
Unless the star is and here's where industry analysts do spit-takes with their Evian Sandra Bullock. Every once in a while, every blue moon, audiences want to be reminded of why they made someone a star in the first place. They like Bullock, they really like her; they just haven't seen any reason to go to her movies. The advertising for The Proposal gave them that excuse: it played on both cutting a successful woman down to her co-star's size and allowing Bullock to flash her trademark poop-eating grimace, the signal of a working-class gal who must protect some guilty secret.
The Proposal also hit it big by mixing a cocktail of familiar ingredients from earlier Bullock hits. In While You Were Sleeping she had to pretend she was in love with a handsome guy (Peter Gallagher) while his family pushed them together. In Two Weeks Notice she was the underling who couldn't stand her boss, then fell in love with him; here she's the boss and generic hunk Ryan Reynolds is the aggrieved assistant. And in her one solo hit, Miss Congeniality, she was a gruff FBI agent who went undercover as a perky contestant in a beauty pageant; this time she's a bitch on heels who has to impersonate a human being at the home of Reynolds' aggressively friendly family. (The Proposal also plays like the flip side of another weekend-with-the-family comedy, the Steve Carell Dan in Real Life. The few romantic comedies, like the zillions of guy-bonding comedies, tend to repeat their tropes.)
The success of The Proposal is a victory both for women filmmakers (director Anne Fletcher, who also did the Katherine Heigl hit 27 Dresses) and for actresses of a certain age, say, over 30. Bullock, who still looks great, gets started on her biggest hit a month before her 45th birthday. That's not girl power it's almost grandma gold.
Here are Box Office Mojo's official weekend estimates of the top 10 movies:
1. The Proposal: $34.1 million, first weekend
2. The Hangover: $26.9 million; $152.9 million, third week
3. Up: $21.3 million; $224.1 million, fourth week
4. Year One: $20.2 million, first weekend
5. The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3: $11.3 million; $43.3 million, second week
6. Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian: $7.3 million; $156 million, fifth week
7. Star Trek: $4.7 million; $239.4 million, seventh week
8. Land of the Lost: $4 million; $43.7 million, third week
9. Imagine That: $3.1 million; $11.4 million, second week
10. Terminator Salvation: $3.1 million; $119.5 million, second week