Like Poseidon distracted but not devoured by a school of piranha (actual size: 5 to 10 inches), The Expendables won the weekend box office at North American theaters by overcoming five undersized new contenders. Sylvester Stallone's senior-citizen action movie, which united the Rocky-Rambo star with such veteran action figures as Dolph Lundgren, Jet Li, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bruce Willis, will have earned $16.5 million this Friday-to-Sunday frame, according to early studio estimates. That's a 53% drop from the film's debut last week, but still enough to win an anemic weekend like this when, for the first time since Labor Day 2009, not a single movie registered as much as $5 million on a Friday night.
Among the quintet of midget challengers to the Stallone throne, Vampires Suck did best, with $12.2 million for the weekend and $18.6 million since its Wednesday opening. Another dimwit burlesque from parody panderers Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer (Epic Movie, Meet the Spartans, Disaster Movie), the vampire farrago is a Mad-magazine satire, dumbed down and grossed out. But give these guys credit for latching onto a timely high concept (and making it for a skimpy $20 million). With the Twilight series in the middle of its five-film run, Vampires Suck drew both fans of Bella, Edward and Jason, and guys out for a few cheap laughs. The movie nosed out Julia Roberts' Eat Pray Love by $200,000; the ranking of the two pictures may change when tomorrow's final figures are issued.
The once robust subgenre of Afro-American ensemble comedy offered Lottery Ticket, with rapper Bow Wow tangling with a ghetto full of stereotypes played by Ice Cube, Terry Crews and Keith David. The movie took in $11.1 million, for the highest per-theater gross among any of the weekend's movies in wide release. The top per-theater number for any movie was claimed by The Tillman Story. Amir Bar Lev's documentary about NFL player Pat Tillman's death by friendly fire in Iraq, and its cover-up by the Army and top Bush Administration officials, amassed $52,200 at four theaters, or $13,100 per screen.
Back on the wide-release list, the kids' movie Nanny McPhee Returns earned $8.3 million, after taking in $62.6 million abroad. A sequel to the semihit film ($122.5 million worldwide) based on Christianna Brand's books about a Mary-Poppins-from-hell governess, the new film was scripted by its star Emma Thompson. Finishing seventh on its first weekend had to be discouraging, but Thompson's nanny bitch did outgross Jennifer Aniston's The Switch. A sperm-donor comedy, with Aniston's BFF Jason Bateman as the father of her turkey-baster child, The Switch attracted only $8.1 million in its opening weekend. Its final earnings could be less than this summer's indie-film hit The Kids Are All Right, which is up to $18.2 million in its seventh week.
The big disappointment for studios that keep grinding out cheapo horror remakes and others betting the backlot on 3-D as the savior of the industry was the underachieving $10 million tallied by Piranha 3D. Arriving decades after Roger Corman's original 1978 low-budget hit (directed by Joe Dante and scripted by John Sayles) and its 1981 sequel Piranha Part Two: The Spawning (directed by a 27-year-old Canadian kid named James Cameron), Alexandre Aja's version enjoyed an enthusiastic 80% rating from the Rotten Tomatoes survey of critics. It also had the magic of 3-D, whose consumer clout and higher prices are supposed to guarantee hits in any genre. But no gimmick sorry, technical advance can get people to pay a 30% surcharge for films they wouldn't necessarily seek out in 2-D. Is the stereoscopic movie a trend or a fad? We may find an answer next weekend, when Cameron's Avatar resurfaces, in 3-D only, at about 700 theaters.
No question, it was a lousy weekend for the domestic box office. Why does Hollywood consider the summer movie bonanza over when the official season still has another month to run? Why does the industry think there are fewer available customers this time of year than in early May, when it launches its first blockbusters? Well, in the prevailing wisdom of the moguls, late August is the time when kids are already back in school, or packing for it, or so depressed by the imminent arrival of homework and cafeteria taunts that they lock themselves in their bedrooms and mope. This notion must comfort Hollywood, since it allows the studios to stage a clearance sale of their junk and genre pictures, then explain away the abysmal numbers by shrugging and saying, "It's the end of summer. Nobody goes to the movies."
For refutation of the theory, you need only look back to this same weekend last year, when Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds a 2½-hr. World War II fantasy with lots of talk, most of it in French or German snagged $38.1 million on its way to a $120.5 million gross in domestic theaters and nearly $200 million abroad. Eight years ago, the Chinese action epic Hero, starring Jet Li and Tony Leung Chiu-wai, opened to $18 million, or nearly $25 million in today's dollars. Either way, Hero would have finished No. 1 this weekend and the whole movie was spoken in Mandarin. To understand what was going on, people actually had to read the English subtitles. Talk about homework!
The moral of this Sunday's sermon: the late-August box office depends on the movies, stupid, not on stupid movies.
Here are the Sunday estimates of this weekend's top-grossing pictures in North American theaters, as reported by Box Office Mojo:
1. The Expendables, $16.5 million; $64.9 million, second week
2. Vampires Suck, $12.2 million; $18.6 million, first five days
3. Eat Pray Love, $12 million; $47.1 million, second week
4. Lottery Ticket, $11.1 million, first weekend
5. The Other Guys, $10.1 million; $88.2 million, third week
6. Piranha 3D, $10 million, first weekend
7. Nanny McPhee Returns, $8.3 million, first weekend
8. The Switch, $8.1 million, first weekend
9. Inception, $7.7 million; $261.8 million, sixth week
10. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, $5 million; $20.7 million, second week
[MONDAY UPDATE: The final weekend figures, released today, show that most of the top 10 films earned more money than estimated yesterday. The Switch made enough to leapfrog Nanny McPhee into seventh place. The full list: 1. The Expendables, $16.968 million; 2. Vampires Suck, $12.2 million; 3. Eat Pray Love, $12.1 million; 4. Lottery Ticket, $10.7 million; 5. The Other Guys, $10.21 million; 6. Piranha 3D, $10.1 million; 7. The Switch, $8.437 million; 8. Nanny McPhee Returns, $8.408 million; 9. Inception, $7.8 million; 10. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, $5.2 million.]