Box-Office Weekend: 2012 Masters Disaster

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Columbia Tristar

A scene from 2012

A desperate "Hello" to whatever is left of our world. This is your Box-Office Weekend correspondent, trying to communicate from Sint Maarten/Saint Marten, the half-Dutch, half-French Caribbean island. Coming here to escape the cataclysm foretold in the top new movie, 2012, backfired. The seas did not rise to swallow up the island, but my laptop did go kaput. Will my report get out via fax or iPhone? If you're reading this, the answer is yes. If not, then 2012 may have arrived three years early.

The ancient Mayan calendar supposedly predicted a worldwide calamity for the year 2012, but few box-office analysts foresaw that Roland Emmerich's cheesy a-popcorn-alypse thriller would earn $65 million at the domestic box office in its first three days. Budgeted at way over $200 million, 2012 outgrossed the rest of the top 10 and earned as much in its first three days as last week's $200 million–plus epic, Disney's A Christmas Carol, did in its first 10 days.

That's pretty impressive, considering that 2012 is not a sequel or a brand name and that its stars (John Cusack, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Danny Glover, Woody Harrelson) are associated more with indie fare than with blockbusters. All Emmerich had to work with was a vaguely ominous future date — think 1984, 2001 — and his confidence that he could get people into theaters by telling them they're all gonna die. He's done it before. A past master of disaster, the German director devastated the planet in Independence Day and The Day After Tomorrow; he wasted New York City in Godzilla and showed us the distant past was no safer in 10,000 B.C. This time Emmerich left billions of humans crushed in the convulsions of the earth and for good measure killed off the (African-American) President of the U.S. and the Pope. Give the people what they want ...

The picture also took in a burly $160 million internationally in its first five days. That's imposing but, for Emmerich, not surprising. With the exception of The Patriot, his American Revolution drama, the director's big pictures have amassed nearly two-thirds of their theatrical revenue in foreign countries. Moviegoers are no more sophisticated overseas, and Emmerich plays to the universal demands for mega-hits: throw little people into a giant disaster, put all the major information in pictures, not dialogue, and make sure that stuff blows up great. With 2012 seemingly headed for a $500 million worldwide take (which it will need to earn back its gigantic budget), Emmerich will underline his status as the most successful openly gay director of all time.

In that category, Emmerich has new competition from Lee Daniels, whose Precious has stormed the specialty box office after winning raves at festivals from Sundance to Cannes. Last week the indie drama — about a Harlem teenager who is illiterate, morbidly obese and pregnant for a second time by her abusive father — broke records in a very limited opening; this week it took in $6.1 million at just 174 theaters for a wowie-zowie $35,000 per screen. That's how Paranormal Activity started out. Fervently promoted by Tyler Perry (who brought the movie to his distributor, Lionsgate) and Oprah Winfrey, with a plug from George H.W. Bush, Precious has a chance to be a crossover hit, appealing to African-American audiences, the art-house crowd and Oscar voters.

Here are the weekend's top-grossing pictures in North American theaters, as reported by Box Office Mojo:

1. 2012, $65 million, first weekend
2. A Christmas Carol, $22.3 million; $63.3 million second week
3. The Men Who Stare at Goats, $6.2 million; $22.4 million, second week
4. Precious, $6.1 million; $8.9 million, second week
5. Michael Jackson's This Is It, $5.1 million; $68.2 million, third week
6. The Fourth Kind, $4.7 million; $20.6 million, second week
7. Couples Retreat, $4.3 million; $102.1 million, sixth week
8. Paranormal Activity, $4.2 million; $103.8 million, eighth week
9. Law Abiding Citizen, $3.9 million; $67.3 million, fifth week
10. The Box, $3.2 million; $13.2 million, second week

The signal is getting weak here. Must try to send this last e-message. Hoping your world is still there, at least till 2010.