Box Office Weakened: Greek and Killers Falter

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Melissa Moseley / Lionsgate

Katherine Heigl and Ashton Kutcher in Killers

For Hollywood studios, and for the mass movie audience, May 2010 was the cruelest month. The big-gun sequels — Iron Man 2, Shrek Forever After, Sex and the City 2 — weren't nearly as pleasing or popular as their originals. Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, the Jerry Bruckheimer period-fantasy action-adventure, lacked the appeal of his previous franchise, Pirates of the Caribbean. Robin Hood, with Ridley Scott directing Russell Crowe in a burly adventure set in a distant time, came nowhere near the pair's Gladiator. The whole month was pretty much a box office bust: down 11% in revenue and a distressing 19% in tickets sold, from May 2009.

In the first week of June, Hollywood offered four new films, none of which met even the modest expectations of most industry prognosticators. Killers, the romantic spy comedy with Katherine Heigl and Ashton Kutcher, got offed. Marmaduke, meant to attract the fans of animal comic strips who made the movie Garfield a hit, got sent back to the pound. The sci-fi horror film Splice was sliced and diced by moviegoer apathy. And heading this feeble quartet was Get Him to the Greek — the gross-out, guy-bonding, lost-in-Vegas comedy that isn't The Hangover.

All four films cowered before the green, spindly legs of a familiar ogre. Shrek Forever After, in its third week, won the frame with a nondescript $25.3 million at North American theaters, according to early studio estimates. The total gross will be down at least 25% from the same weekend last year, when another CGI animated feature, Pixar's Up, battled another R-rated comedy, The Hangover (the bachelor-party boys narrowly won).

The weekend stats get worse: none of the new films grossed as much as $20 million. To find any June weekend with numbers that low, you have to go back five years, when Crowe's inspirational boxing movie Cinderella Man earned $18.3 million. But that would be $20.7 million, factoring inflation; and Cinderella Man faced three holdover hits (Madagascar, The Longest Yard and the final episode of Star Wars) that earned nearly $80 million that weekend. This time, Shrek was the only returning hit, and it earned less than a third of the 2005 winners' tally. In other words, this weekend's new films faced no significant competition, and they still tanked.

The first weekend of June is supposed to be Apatow time — when American moviegoers are enthralled by a male-oriented comedy that is either produced by Judd Apatow or is deeply indebted to his knowingly raucous style. On this weekend last year, The Hangover earned $45 million. In 2008, Apatow's Adam Sandler farce You Don't Mess with the Zohan took in $38.5 million. The year before that, Apatow's Knocked Up, with no stars but great early reviews, cadged a nifty $30 million. Hell, even the Jack Black comedy Nacho Libre scored $28 million on this weekend in 2006. So Get Him to the Greek, with two Apatow stars (Superbad's Jonah Hill and Forgetting Sarah Marshall's Russell Brand) enacting the usual journey of hostility and comradeship — should have matched or exceeded the numbers of its predecessors, instead of stumbling to a $17.4 million weekend. Why did moviegoers suddenly get so picky?

The truth is that audiences didn't flock to the successful movies because it was the weekend they were supposed to see a comedy. They went because they heard the pictures were good; they saw, approved and told their friends. (Word of mouth propelled Knocked Up and The Hangover to especially long lines and lives.) The corollary is that the word about mediocre films gets around much faster these days. Hostile Tweets and shrugging Facebook entries can make a movie a flop by late Friday night. And despite indulgent reviews from critics, real people thought Greek was only so-so; exiting moviegoers polled by CinemaScore gave it a B rating — the same undistinguished score that Killers got.

As the top draw in 27 Dresses and The Ugly Truth, Katherine Heigl has come close to the traditional definition of a star: someone who will get people to pay to see her in bad movies. Killers, with a $16.1 million weekend, may break that streak. With a $75 million budget, it is the most expensive movie made to date by the indie company Lionsgate, which created the hint of a stink by refusing to screen the film in advance for critics. And somehow Kutcher wasn't seen as the right eHarmony match for Heigl; though he's a few months older than his co-star, he retains a puppy-dog winsomeness not suitable to the role of a longtime assassin. It would have made more sense if Kutcher had starred in the Marmaduke movie, or played him.

Yet Killers was Avatar compared with Splice, shot on a $26 million budget 2½ years ago. Surprise: Oscar winner Adrian Brody and Oscar nominee Sarah Polley are not marquee stars! Splice finished in eighth place this weekend, earning just $7.45 million, and pulled a D from CinemaScore — which on the moviegoers' bell curve is about what Louisianans these days would give BP.

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

1. Shrek Forever After, $25.3 million; $183 million, third week
2. Get Him to the Greek, $17.4 million, first weekend
3. Killers, $16.1 million, first weekend
4. Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, $13.9 million; $59.5 million, second week
5. Sex and the City 2, $12.65 million; $73.4 million, second week
6. Marmaduke, $11.3 million, first weekend
7. Iron Man 2, $7.8 million; $291.3 million, fifth week
8. Splice, $7.45 million, first weekend
9. Robin Hood, $5.1 million; $94.3 million, fourth week
10. Letters to Juliet, $3 million; $43.3 million, fourth week