Box Office Weekend: Shutter Island Opens Big

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Paramount / Everett

Leonardo DiCaprio in Shutter Island

Expensive movies from notable directors usually open toward the end of the year, for timely attention in the Oscar season. Martin Scorsese's last three features — Gangs of New York, The Aviator and The Departed, all starring Leonardo DiCaprio — all followed that rule. The latest Scorsese-DiCaprio pairing, Shutter Island, was originally to come out last October, in plenty of time to beat the Academy drum. When the film's distributor, Paramount, abruptly switched the release date to February 2010, the move was taken as an admission that the movie lacked either Oscar gravitas or box-office clout. In vain did Paramount point out that mid-February was when The Silence of the Lambs opened in 1991, and all that film did was earn $273 million worldwide, back when that was real money, and sweep the Academy Awards. No, industry solons proclaimed, the Scorsese picture would all but shutter before it opened. Bring out the dead.

Instead, Shutter Island killed, and the Paramount brass looks like a winning brain trust. According to studio estimates, the movie will have earned $40.2 million in its first three days. That's the biggest debut weekend for any Scorsese picture (The Departed was his previous top opener), and any DiCaprio (yes, including Titanic). Turns out the R-rated whodunit — with Leo playing a U.S. marshal searching for a killer in an insane asylum — benefited from an effective ad spot on the Super Bowl and a week with no other new films in wide release. Scorsese's very limited competition came from fellow world-class auteur Roman Polanski's The Ghost Writer, another conspiracy thriller set on a windy Massachusetts island. The film took in $179,000 in four theaters in New York and Los Angeles, reaped encouraging reviews and, yesterday, won Polanski the best director prize at the Berlin Film Festival. It will open wider over the next few weeks.

Shutter Island's success was bad news for last weekend's top three films. Valentine's Day lost 70% of last week's audience, Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief 51% and The Wolfman, an expensive flop, 69%. Percy Jackson could be the only film of the trio that isn't a one-week wonder. Of the returning films in the weekend's top 15, the one with the most modest drop, 26%, was Dwayne Johnson's kid comedy Tooth Fairy, which shows how little staying power the other movies have.

Avatar also held well, finishing third despite losing 104 screens from last week. The James Cameron eco-epic dropped only 32%, and some time this week will cross the $700 million North American mark, fully $100 million over the previous all-time domestic champ, Cameron's Titanic. Its worldwide gross has passed $2.4 billion, nearly $600 million more than Titanic, and looks to keep going until some undetermined date when everyone on the planet will have seen it.

Back on the weekend before Christmas, when Avatar opened to a $77 million gross, another film made its debut with $82,664 on four screens. That was Crazy Heart, an ordinary little movie that was at first scheduled to go direct to DVD. But the appealing performance by Jeff Bridges as a country-music star on the downalator charmed critics and started piling up best actor awards: from the L.A. film critics, the broadcast film critics, the Golden Globes gang and, most important, the Screen Actors Guild. Bridges is now the front runner for a Best Actor Oscar, and audiences have scrambled to catch up with the movie. Last weekend it was the only film in the top 15 to rise from its previous week.

Now Crazy Heart has passed $20 million at the domestic box office, and is the only indie film to get any monetary traction from its awards exposure. Sorry, The Last Station, An Education and A Single Man. As for Nine, the big-budget musical with bigger Oscar hopes, it did cadge a few nominations but has earned less than Crazy Heart, despite costing eight times as much to make. This weekend's take was a sad $19,000. The movie may as well have shuttered.

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

1. Shutter Island, $40.2 million, first weekend
2. Valentine's Day, $17.2 million; $87.4 million, second week
3. Avatar, $16.1 million; $687.8 million, tenth week
4. Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief, $15.3 million; $58.8 million, second week
5. The Wolfman, $9.8 million; $50.3 million, second week
6. Dear John, $7.3 million; $66 million, third week
7. Tooth Fairy, $4.5 million; $49.9 million, fifth week
8. Crazy Heart, $3 million; $21.6 million, tenth week
9. From Paris With Love, $2.5 million; $21.2 million, third week
10. Edge of Darkness, $2.2 million; $40.3 million, fourth week