Everybody was a kid once. Many people still are. And nearly all of them, it seems, went to the movies this weekend to channel their inner child, or the monster lurking in their psyches. In a weekend whose gross revenue was 38% over the previous one's, and 59% over the same one last year, the top spot went to Where the Wild Things Are, which set an opening-day record for a live-action PG film and, according to early studio reports, will end the session with $32.5 million. The serial-killer thriller Law Abiding Citizen slashed its way to second place, with $21 million, while the haunted-house horror movie Paranormal Activity underlined its phenomenon status by earning $20.2 million on 760 screens a sensational $26,000 per theater.
Warner Bros., the studio behind Wild Things, had been plenty apprehensive about director Spike Jonze's ages-in-the-making version of the 1963 Maurice Sendak classic, which is essentially a kid-size retelling of the Tarzan or Sheena-style fable about a white person becoming the monarch of a remote land. This was no sure-shot, cuddly animated feature but a spikier live-action fantasy essentially an art-house fairy tale whose special effects were, as co-screenwriter Dave Eggers, marvels, "just people in big suits." Think of the beasties as members of the Snuffleupagus family, with a Catskills tinge.
But audiences of all ages paid to see it, and the film played especially well (an A- CinemaScore rating) among those under age 25. Its road was paved by the success of another favorite children's book brought to the screen, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, which on the previous four weekends had ranked in the top three spots and on Oct. 15 cracked $100 million at the North American box office. It's an open question whether the Jonze movie can show those steady legs, but for now, Wild Things is making Warner Bros.'s heart sing.
Law Abiding Citizen had no pedigree at all. Based on an original screenplay, it stars Gerard Butler as a decent fellow who, when his wife and daughter are murdered in front of him, is transformed into an evil genius, terrorizing assistant D.A. Jamie Foxx and the rest of Philadelphia with murders of a scheming, Saw-like sadism. Saddled with a scathing 16% score from the "top critics" monitored on Rotten Tomatoes (Wild Things nabbed a gentleman's 68%), Citizen won audiences on star quality and the movie marketplace's lack of other adult-themed melodrama read: crap for grownups. Younger viewers in search of shivers had already lined up for Paranormal Activity, which now stands a fair chance of breaking out from cult toy to the year's must-see Halloween hit.
Every director of the top three pictures scored personal bests. Wild Things made 44% more in a weekend than what either of Jonze's previous two features, Being John Malkovich and Adaptation, earned in their entire runs. (Mind you, Wild Things cost a lot more: at least $80 million.) Law Abiding Citizen had the highest per-screen average of any film directed by F. Gary Gray. Oren Peli is a first-time auteur, but since he made Paranormal Activity in 2006 for a laughably low $11,000, he could boast that his movie made back more than twice its budget in each theater that showed it. Peli's homegrown horror movie also made the other new fright film in wide release, The Stepfather, a box-office orphan. It earned only $12.3 million.
In narrower releases, the Coen brothers' A Serious Man earned $860,000 at 82 theaters; Black Dynamite, the blaxploitation tribute that was highly praised at Sundance, could cadge only $141,000 on 70 screens; and the omnibus entry New York, I Love You, with directorial contributions by Mira Nair, Allen Hughes, Brett Ratner and Natalie Portman, took in a small-town $372,000 in 199 venues. Hopes remain high for two British romances. Bright Star, about poet John Keats' doomed love, has received $3.5 million in contributions from moony English majors; and An Education, with star-is-born Carey Mulligan, crossed the half-million mark at 19 theaters.
Those are healthy numbers, in miniature, but none of these bijou entries could compete with paranormal ghosts, Gerard Butler's blood lust or Spike Jonze's call to "Let the wild rumpus start!"
Here are the official studio estimates for this weekend's top 10 movies at the North American box office:
1. Where the Wild Things Are, $32.5 million, first weekend
2. Law Abiding Citizen, $21 million, first weekend
3. Paranormal Activity, $20.2 million; $33.7 million, fourth week
4. Couples Retreat, $18 million; $63.3 million, second week
5. The Stepfather, $12.3 million, first weekend
6. Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, $8.1 million; $108.3 million, fifth week
7. Zombieland, $7.8 million; $60.8 million, third week
8. Toy Story 3-D and Toy Story 2 3-D, $3 million; $28.6 million, third week
9. Surrogates, $1.9 million; $36.3 million, fourth week
10. The Invention of Lying, $1.9 million; $ 15.5 million, third week