Facebook Tops the Box Office, but Unconvincingly

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Sony Pictures

Jesse Eisenberg stars as Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network

The Social Network may be a front runner in the Oscar sweepstakes, but at the box office it's no Zombieland.

Aaron Sorkin's lightly fictionalized story of Mark Zuckerberg's founding of Facebook pulled a stratospheric 97 on Metacritic's survey of movie reviewers and more pre-release buzz than a symphony of Texas chainsaws. All this happy talk had the touts who predict movie grosses forecasting an opening of $28 million to $30 million. On Sunday, though, The Social Network was reported to have earned $23 million at the North American box office, according to early studio estimates. That's more than twice what its nearest competitor grossed, but it was still a little ... so-so — and less than the $24.7 million that the film's leading man, Jesse Eisenberg, took in this same weekend last year with Zombieland.

The Facebook figure was also below the openings for Social Network director David Fincher's 2008 The Curious Case of Benjamin Button ($26.9 million) and also his 2002 Panic Room ($30.1 million). Mind you, those films cost a ton more than this one did. And they had more marketable elements: Brad Pitt, Jodie Foster, the thriller genre. Considering that the new film is a chatty, no-sex drama about a business start-up, with a bland title (nearly everyone calls it "the Facebook movie") and a cast of talented young people without much movie-star clout, it did fine — just not fabulous.

Studio research suggests the film appealed more to women (53% of the weekend audience) and adults (55% were 25 or over). In the CinemaScore exit poll of moviegoers, the picture received a solid B-plus, and an A-minus from viewers under 18. And Sony Pictures' Steve Elzer announced that The Social Network's "official fan page on MySpace has nearly 2.4 million fans." (What, no fan page on Facebook?) But some Hollywoodians suggested that the film was a regional, and even a class, phenomenon. "Left coast, right coast and a smidge of Chicago only," the executive of a rival studio — repeat: rival studio — told the industry blogs Deadline Hollywood and the Wrap. "The rest of the country could care less."

None of the country cared at all about the weekend's other critical favorite, the Chloë Grace Moretz–starring Let Me In, which limped into eighth place with a toothless $5.3 million. (Forecasts had been in the $8 million range.) A remake of the brooding Swedish vampire film Let the Right One In, about a lonely 12-year-old boy who befriends a strange girl who has "been 12 for a very long time," Let Me In boasted a high 80 rating from Metacritic's film reviewers, an icky C-plus from CinemaScore's real people and, from the mass audience, a "that's O.K., you don't have to let me in, I'm not that interested anyway" shrug. Any R-rated thriller focusing on preteens has a high hurdle to clear — the kids the movie's about can't see it on their own — but Let Me In suffered the ignominy of finishing the weekend behind another new horror film, the Renée Zellweger film Case 39, which was made in 2006 and was deemed so awful, it spent four years in the can. The disappointing results for Let Me In, along with this past spring's Kick-Ass, makes Moretz the sweetheart of slick, smart, gender-bending gore-athons that movieplexers don't want to see.

Instead, they went back to, or caught up with, older films: the 3-D animated feature Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga-Hoole, which held on to its No. 2 slot from last week; Oliver Stone's sequel Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, which dropped to third; and Ben Affleck's The Town, which established itself as a solid hit in its fourth week. Among summer holdovers, The Twilight Saga: Eclipse hit the $300 million domestic mark, while Inception, still in the top dozen films in North America, topped Christopher Nolan's previous blockbuster The Dark Knight in foreign markets, $486 million to $468 million. On the indie front, two documentaries kept grabbing attention. The public-school doc Waiting for "Superman" expanded to 34 theaters and maintained the nation's highest per-screen average. And art-house aficionados contributed another $600,000 to the coffers of Catfish, the story of a photographer lured into a strange rendezvous with a woman he met — where else? — on Facebook.

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

1. The Social Network, $23 million, first weekend
2. Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga-Hoole, $10.9 million; $30 million, second week
3. Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, $10.1 million; $35.9 million, second week
4. The Town, $10 million; $64.3 million, third week
5. Easy A, $7 million; $42.4 million, third week
6. You Again, $5.5 million; $16.4 million, second week
7. Case 39, $5.35 million, first weekend
8. Let Me In, $5.3 million, first weekend
9. Devil, $3.7 million; $27.4 million, third week
10. Alpha and Omega, $3 million; $19 million, third week

[MONDAY UPDATE: According to final figures, The Social Network earned only $22.4 million, more than a half-million dollars less than predicted. The Town, Easy A and Devil all finished $150,000 to $250,000 below their Sunday estimates, while the multigenerational femme comedy You Again did $220,000 better than originally announced. Girl power endures.]