Box Office Weekend: District 9 Shows Prawn Power

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Sometimes bad breaks can bring great fortune. A few years ago, Peter Jackson, the Lord of the Rings movies, planned a big-screen version of the Halo video-game universe and tapped Neill Blomkamp to direct it. When that project collapsed after a few months, Jackson proposed that Blomkamp turn his science-fiction short Alive in Joburg into his first feature film. It would be set in Blomkamp's native South Africa, focus on the country's traumatic tradition of apartheid, have characters who speak in unfamiliar accents or unknown languages, boast no star power — the lead actor had never acted in a movie, and his costar is one of the digitized space creatures derisively called "prawns" — and bear a title that sounds less like an action movie than a highway sign. The picture might have been destined to play art houses, or to be tossed in the direct-to-DVD bin.

Instead, District 9 made a triumphant invasion of North American theaters, pulling in an otherworldly $37 million (according to early studio estimates) and winning the weekend by outgrossing the previous box-office champ, G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra, by nearly $15 million. The results, which far exceeded industry expectations, instantly turns Blomkamp, the 29-year-old from Johannesburg, into the new prince of a town 10,000 miles away. Hollywood loves a guy who makes a smart, popular movie that in three days earns considerably more than its skimpy $30 million budget. Already the town is whispering its favorite word — franchise — in Blomkamp's ear. District 10 cannot be far behind.

And to prove there was something for moviegoers of both sexes this weekend — provided they love sci-fi — The Time Traveler's Wife lured nearly $20 million worth of ticket buyers to take third place. Shot nearly two years ago and financed by the now-defunct New Line Cinema, this moony love story connected with female audiences in an unusually crowded marketplace for femme films. Four of the top 10 films were romances, as couples could also choose the love-of-food bio-pic Julie & Julia, in fourth place; Katherine Heigl's The Ugly Truth, in eighth; and the she-loves-me-not rom-com (500) Days of Summer, in tenth. Kids could see G-Force (fifth), Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (seventh) and the Disney-released Ponyo (ninth).

That left room in the top 10 for just one rowdy-guy movie aside from G.I. Joe, and it was a clunker. The used-car farce The Goods: Live Hard, Sell Hard fell hard, cadging just $5.5 million and instantly qualifying for an federal auto bailout. Of the other new releases, Hayao Miyazaki's Ponyo, which had made $165 million in its native Japan, earned $3.5 million in the English-language version — which is not much, but is also not bad, considering the modest returns for Miyazaki's previous theatrical releases in North America (Princess Mononoke, $2.4 million; Spirited Away, $10 million; and Howl's Moving Castle, $4.7 million). The high-school rock musical Bandslam made little noise, landing in 13th place with $2.3 million.

The success of District 9 spoke to the abiding power of sci-fi. The movie, which posits the imprisoning of space creatures in a Joburg detention camp, and the plight of their human warden who gets infected and forges a bond with the aliens to save his own life, is the sixth s-f action adventure to win a weekend in the 2009 summer season that began in early May with X-Men Origins: Wolverine. But it's the first one not sponsored by Hollywood — Jackson raised the money, Sony bought the rights — and the first South African film that American audiences have paid much attention to since the tribesman fable The Gods Must Be Crazy earned $25 million (about $55 million in today's dollars) in 1985-86. Essentially, this is a little foreign film that hit it big.

On her Deadline Hollywood Daily blog, industry reporter Nikki Finke summarized the reasons for the film's big bust-out: "Jackson's name means so much to 18-49 aged moviegoers. Comic-Con geeks and movie critic old farts loved it. (Finke later amended the laater phrase to "movie critic geezers." Thanks, Nikki.) It's the #1 most tweeted topic Friday night. And Marc Weinstock's viral marketing campaign for a year bore no Sony/Tri-Star logo on purpose so it wouldn't have a big studio's PR machine feel. (As if the audience had organically discovered the pic themselves.)"

Internet marketing doesn't always work — remember three years ago, when Snakes on a Plane was predicted to be a smash because of all the fanboy chat, then crashed on arrival? — but it can help spread the word for a film that has other elements, like thrills and ugly aliens. And when, like District 9, it's a damn fine movie.

Here are the studios' official weekend estimates for the top 10 movies, as reported by Box Office Mojo:

1. District 9, $37 million, first weekend

2. G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra, $22.5 million; $98.8 million, second week

3. The Time Traveler's Wife, $19.2 million, first weekend

4. Julie & Julia, $12.4 million; $43.7 million, second week

5. G-Force, $6.9 million; $99 million, fourth week

6. The Goods: Live Hard, Sell Hard, $5.4 million, first weekend

7. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, $5.2 million; $283.9 million, fifth week

8. The Ugly Truth, $4.5 million; $77.5 million, fourth week

9. Ponyo, $3.5 million, first weekend

10. (500) Days of Summer, $3 million; $18 million, fifth weekend