Box Office: Exorcism Edges Takers As Avatar Crashes

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Patti Perret / Fallen Angel Productions, LLC

A scene from The Last Exorcism

In a battle of "lasts," the pastor performing his farewell exorcism looks to have beaten the thieves executing their ultimate heist during the final weekend of summer's last full month. Unlike the previous frame, when the top two movies earned less than $30 million, this weekend's tandem garnered more than $40 million, showing there is still some life in horror and action grind house films. The one big disappointment: the underpopulated theaters where the all-time top-grossing movie was playing. Avatar tanked in its heralded rerelease, finishing out of this weekend's top 10 and further tarnishing the economic glamour of 3-D.

The Last Exorcism, in which an Evangelical minister (Patrick Fabian, who plays Barb's scheming brother-in-law Ted Price on Big Love) agrees to let a documentary team film a demon chasing, earned $21.3 million at the North American box office, according to early studio figures. That number is just slightly above the $21 million claimed by Takers, the armored-car-robbery drama with a grab bag of stars: Matt Dillon, rappers Chris Brown and T.I., and The Wire's Idris Elba, plus young Darth Vader (Hayden Christensen), the princess of Pandora (Zoe Saldana) and the white guy from the Fast & Furious series. A guy-robbers-vs.-guy-cops face-off, Takers still attracted more women (52%) than men. And though it played in only three-quarters as many venues as The Last Exorcism, it nearly took first place with a sterling per-screen average of $9,500. Both films performed considerably stronger than the industry adepts had predicted.

Remember that the "weekend" totals issued by the studios on Sunday are based on hard numbers from Friday play dates, ballpark summaries of the Saturday gross and sheer guesswork for Sunday. It's a little like declaring a football game over after three quarters. (The finals stats come out Monday afternoon.) Sony has predicted that Takers will take in $5.8 million on Sunday; Lionsgate forecasts a more modest $4.8 million for Exorcism. Even that figure may be high, though, considering the film dropped from $9.4 million on Friday to $7.1 million on Saturday and that it received a rock-bottom D rating from the CinemaScore poll of exiting moviegoers — in bold contrast to an honorable 71% from the critics monitored by Rotten Tomatoes.

[MONDAY UPDATE: Sure enough, The Last Exorcism faded in the Sunday stretch and finished the weekend with $20.367 million, placing behind Takers' $20.512 million. Lionsgate had predicted that the $2.3 million drop in revenue from Friday to Saturday would be replicated from Saturday to Sunday. Instead, the Sabbath total was only $3.9 million, or nearly $1 million less than the guesstimate. Sony's forecast for the Sunday take of Takers was also too rosy, but only by about $500,000, giving the movie bragging rights as the weekend's winner. In fact, the weekend gross of every film in the top 10 — except for Piranha 3D — was slightly overreported. Avatar: Special Edition finished in 11th place, with an accurately predicted $4 million.]

But even if The Last Exorcism proves to be a one-day wonder, that shouldn't bother producer Eli Roth. The picture's weekend gross is still likely to be higher than that of Roth's biggest hit as a director, the 2006 Hostel. And Exorcism's production budget was a weeny $1.8 million — about one-tenth what Takers cost, and well less than one-hundredth of what Avatar cost.

For Avatar: Special Edition, James Cameron added about nine minutes of Pandoran foliage and flying. This version, which opened in 812 auditoriums in 3-D and IMAX 3-D, was pegged to earn anywhere from $3 million to $20 million. For the low-side predictors, it was noted that the movie had been in 500 theaters as recently as three weeks ago; on the high side, it had been shown in very few 3-D theaters — the preferred venues for this otherworldly extravaganza — since early March. As it turned out, the pessimists were right: it garnered just $4 million for the weekend. (Compare that with the $12.5 million that the 3-D double feature of Toy Story and Toy Story 2 earned during its opening weekend last October.) Was the Avatar engagement meant to promote the DVD, which is scheduled to come out in November? If so, that's odd, since the home version will be available only in 2-D.

Weep not for Cameron. Avatar is, by far, the all-time winner at domestic theaters ($754 million) and worldwide ($2.745 billion), and 14th in real dollars (just behind the Charlton Heston movie Ben-Hur; Cameron's Titanic is sixth). The movie hardly needed a victory lap. The true purpose of its rerelease, for many advocates of 3-D as the future of film, was to re-establish the format as a lure to audiences, after the recent box office failure of the stereoptic Cats & Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore, Step Up 3D and Piranha 3D. If schlock couldn't get moviegoers to pay the jacked-up price for glasses, maybe Cameron's classy spectacle would.

Didn't happen, though. After early-summer blockbusters like Shrek Forever After, Toy Story 3 and Despicable Me, the late-summer 3-D recession continues. And now that exhibitors have spent a bundle converting their halls to accommodate 3-D, Hollywood is going to have to make some hit films to fill them.

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

1. The Last Exorcism, $21.3 million, first weekend
2. Takers, $21 million, first weekend
3. The Expendables, $9.5 million; $82 million, third week
4. Eat Pray Love, $7 million; $60.7 million, third week
5. The Other Guys, $6.6 million; $99.3 million, fourth week
6. Vampires Suck, $5.3 million; $27.9 million, second week
7. Inception, $5.1 million; $270.7 million, seventh week
8. Nanny McPhee Returns, $4.743 million; $17 million, second week
9. The Switch, $4.658 million; $16.5 million, second week
10. Piranha 3D, $4.3 million; $18.3 million, second week