Box-Office Weekend: Couples Fills a Vacuum

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Vince Vaughn, center, in Couples Retreat

Are there movies nobody likes but everyone sees? Yes, especially over weekends when only one major-studio film is released. That seemed to be the case with Couples Retreat, the Vince Vaughn comedy that received a flatulent 13% on Rotten Tomatoes' survey of critics' reviews and a mediocre B rating from CinemaScore's poll of exiting moviegoers. Yet by Sunday night, according to early estimates, it will have earned $35.4 million, the top gross ever for a movie on Columbus Day weekend.

Then there are movies that people simply have to see. Paranormal Activity, made three years ago for a no-budget $11,000 — yes, thousand — is the new overnight sensation. Opening two weeks ago at midnight shows in 16 college towns, Oren Peli's haunted-house thriller expanded on Friday to full playdates at 159 venues and scared up a phenomenal $7.1 million. That's $44,475 per screen, making this the highest-ever average for a medium-size release. Paramount Pictures' clever viral media campaign helped, but credit the movie's breakout status to old-fashioned word of mouth and newfangled word of thumb. Twitter strikes again.

With no new wide-release competition in their respective genres, last week's top three all slipped down just one notch. Zombieland dropped a less-than-expected 39%; the surprise CGI-animation hit Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs slipped a mere 24% to inch near the $100 million mark; and the 3-D double bill of Pixar favorites Toy Story and Toy Story 2 fell 39%. The weekend should reach a cumulative $100 million. That will leave the box office 8% ahead of last year in revenue and 4% ahead in attendance, making movies one of the few big businesses to flourish in the Great Recession.

Couples Retreat tells the tale of a reduced-rate trip to Bora Bora taken by a quartet of Midwestern guys (Vaughn, Jon Favreau, Jason Bateman and Faizon Love) and their spouses or squeezes (four actresses with Ks in their names). It's now 13 years since Vaughn and Favreau made their early rep with the smart buddy-comedy Swingers. In the interim, Favreau has become a respected director (Elf, Iron Man) and Vaughn, pretty much, a movie star. Three of the films he has top-lined — Wedding Crashers, The Break-Up and Four Christmases — have taken in about $450 million at the North American box office; and even his 2007 Yuletide flop, the egregious Fred Claus, did $72 million. An actor who gets people to pay to see the bad movies he's in: that's a good definition of a star. The odder thing is that the large, shambling Vaughn is a babe magnet; the early audience for Couples was 61% female.

Couples' success was welcome news for Universal Pictures, which this summer suffered disaster after comedy disaster (Land of the Lost, Brüno, Funny People) and recently replaced its top two executives. "Movies always do business after the studio heads get fired," an insider told Nikki Finke at Deadline Hollywood, echoing film-biz folk wisdom and ignoring the flop opening of Disney's Surrogates the week after the company canned Dick Cook, its longtime production chief.

To put Paranormal Activity's take of $7.1 million on 159 screens in perspective, consider the openings of two other films this weekend. Good Hair, Chris Rock's docu-comedy about Afro-American coiffure, took in $1.1 million at 186 sites; and the inspirational boxing drama From Mexico With Love gleaned a punchless $308,000 at 279 venues. In two showcase openings, the highly praised romantic comedy An Education — whose leading lady, Carey Mulligan, is virtually assured an Oscar nomination for Best Actress — earned a precocious $162,000 at four theaters; and the soccer movie The Damned United played to the equivalent of a scoreless tie: $36,800 at six undercrowded stadiums.

PA will keep expanding through the pre-Halloween fright season, trying to hold off other horror pictures — The Stepfather, Saw VI, The House of the Devil and Cirque du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant — at least until the last weekend of October. That's when we get the one back-from-the dead movie that won't be stopped: Michael Jackson's This Is It.

Here are the official studio estimates for this weekend's top 10 movies at the North American box office:

1. Couples Retreat, $35.3 million, first weekend
2. Zombieland, $15 million; $47.8 million, second week
3. Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, $12 million; $96.2 million, fourth week
4. Toy Story 3-D and Toy Story 2 3-D, $7.7 million; $22.7 million, second week
5. Paranormal Activity, $7.1 million; $8.2 million, third week
6. Surrogates, $4.1 million; $32.6 million, third week
7. The Invention of Lying, $3.4 million; $12.3 million, second week
8. Whip It, $2.8 million; $8.6 million, second week
9. Capitalism: A Love Story, $2.7 million; $9.1 million, third week
10. Fame, $2.6 million; $20 million, third week