Michael Jackson Is Still 'It' — At Least Overseas

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Joel Ryan / AP

Fans gather in London's Leicester Square at the U.K. premiere of Michael Jackson's This Is It on Oct. 27, 2009

All around the world, they still love Michael. Here in North America, they just like him.

Michael Jackson's This Is It, director Kenny Ortega's compilation of rehearsal footage from the London gig that was aborted by the star's death earlier this year, earned $101 million in its first days at the worldwide box office, according to initial estimates by Sony Pictures. That set a global record for a concert film and proved the point of a movie-industry riddle passed along by Deadline Hollywood's Nikki Finke: "What's the difference between a dead Michael Jackson and a dead cow? The cow can't be milked."

Back home, Jackson is still bad, he's bad — I mean, he's a reliable generator of concert-film coin — but he's no Miley Cyrus. Her Hannah Montana/Miley Cyrus: Best of Both Worlds Concert Tour took in $31.1 million on just 683 screens, for a $45,561 average, in its first three days of domestic release in February 2008. By contrast, This Is It, which opened with midnight shows on Oct. 27, played in nearly 3,500 venues in North America, amassing $32.5 million in its first five days and a solid but unspectacular $21.3 million over the Halloween weekend, for a per-screen average of $6,119. That was well below the pre-release guesses of about $35 million for the three-day weekend.

There are always explanations when a strongly hyped movie underperforms. This was the first year since 1998 that Halloween has fallen on a Saturday, often the week's biggest box-office day. Some fans went trick-or-treating instead of This Is It-ing. Dollars and euros aside for the moment, the movie, which most critics greeted warmly, was a pretty impressive achievement considering that back in the spring, neither Ortega (who was staging the concert) nor the videographers (who were shooting the footage for Jackson's private library) knew they were making a movie. Originally announced as a two-week run, This Is It will keep playing indefinitely.

When Cyrus' movie opened, it had the competition of a wide-release horror film, The Eye, while Jackson's film was the only big new title opening this weekend. But Jackson did have to fight off a horror film that, like This Is It, nobody four months ago could have predicted would be a Halloween attraction. In its sixth week, the no-budget Paranormal Activity sustained its phenomenon status by grabbing another $16.5 million, for a total of $84.6 million — an excellent profit margin for a movie that cost just $11,000 to make.

Two critically reviled movies — the revenge drama Law Abiding Citizen, with Jamie Foxx and Gerard Butler, and the Vince Vaughn vanity comedy Couples Retreat — finished third and fourth, proving that star power can still trump a lack of quality. Otherwise, the terrain was strewn with the corpses of autumn genre films: the horrific Saw VI, The Stepfather and Cirque du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant as well as the CGI anime fantasy Astro Boy. Hilary Swank's Amelia, which once had eyes for Oscar nominations, remained lost at sea in its second week.

But hey, it could've been worse for Amelia. On Oct. 26, another female-skewing drama, the Iranian The Stoning of Soraya M., grossed a total of $8 — that's one ticket, all day. And if that single patron didn't stay for both evening shows, then the movie was playing to a ghost house.

Here are the official studio estimates for this weekend's top 10 movies in North American theaters, as reported by Box Office Mojo:

1. Michael Jackson's This Is It, $21.3 million; $32.5 million, first five days
2. Paranormal Activity, $16.5 million; $84.8 million, sixth week
3. Law Abiding Citizen, $7.3 million; $51.4 million, third week
4. Couples Retreat, $6.1 million; $86.7 million, fourth week
5. Saw VI, $5.6 million; $22.8 million, second week
6. Where the Wild Things Are, $5.1 million; $61.8 million, third week
7. The Stepfather, $3.4 million; $24.7 million, third week
8. Astro Boy, $3 million; $10.9 million, second week
9. Amelia, $3 million; $8.3 million, second week
10. Cirque du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant, $2.8 million; $10.5 million, second week