Box Office: Social Network Outraces Heigl — and Secretariat

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Diane Lane in Secretariat

The Social Network doesn't have 500 million friends yet, but it's still the most popular guy at the multiplex. The Sony bio-drama, which stars Jesse Eisenberg as Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, won the weekend at the North American box office with $15.5 million, according to early studio estimates. That edged it ahead of two ambitious newcomers — the Katherine Heigl romantic comedy Life as We Know It, at $14.6 million, and the inspirational horse opera Secretariat, at $12.6 million — with both finishing slightly below expectations.

The Facebook movie's take is just 31% below that of last weekend's debut, the smallest sophomore dip of any film that opened at No. 1. With $46 million in the till so far, Network has already earned back its $40 million in production costs. It's also making inroads beyond its initial aficionados among the upper-middle urban elite — the demographic that led one rival studio exec to sour-grapes Network's audience as "left coast, right coast and a smidge of Chicago only. The rest of the country could care less." As Sony distribution chief Rory Bruer made a point of telling the Wrap's Daniel Frankel, "We got great holds this week in places like Wichita." That's like Democrats winning the farm vote. If the movie keeps percolating, it could join the Ben Affleck heist film The Town (up to $73.8 million in its fourth week) in the 2010 fall season's solid-hit category. Think of it: two films that are critics' favorites with high ambitions and an adult skew.

Translation: movies in the more reliable genres of animation, horror and rom-com are tanking. By this weekend last year, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs had already earned nearly $100 million; this fall, Legend of the Guardians hasn't yet hit $40 million. Resident Evil: Afterlife, the one profitable scare machine of autumn 2010, has earned less in its fifth weekend than last year's Zombieland made by its third. And consider that exactly a year ago, Zombieland (another Jesse Eisenberg film in its second frame) earned $14.8 million, not much off this week's tally for The Social Network. But on the Columbus Day weekend of 2009, the big new romantic comedy, the Vince Vaughn–starring Couples Retreat, corralled a lusty $34.3 million, almost $20 million more than Life as We Know It took in this time. The weekend as a whole was off 15% from the same time last year.

Heigl's opening take was the poorest of the films she's made since breaking out as Seth Rogen's one-night stand in Knocked Up: $23 million for 27 Dresses in 2008, $27 million for last year's The Ugly Truth and $15.8 million for this summer's spy farce Killers. Heigl still has a reliable audience (68% of those attending Life as We Know It were women; 70% were ages 25 and older), but it's shrinking. She has the same problem that long bedeviled Sandra Bullock: she's a likable star who plays unlikable characters — shrill, bossy career gals desperate for Mr. Right — in bad movies. Maybe she'll do better in her next role, as the nice girl–hit woman in One for the Money, the first of Janet Evanovich's Stephanie Plum novels, with a script by Liz Brixius, creator of Showtime's spiky Nurse Jackie series. If that one works, Heigl has a franchise character; if not, maybe she can rejoin the cast of Grey's Anatomy.

Disney had blockbuster hopes for Secretariat, whose outline fulfilled the main requirement for the standard movie pitch: it's like this hit movie mixed with this hit movie. The story of the legendary steed and its plucky owner was supposed to be Seabiscuit (the 2003 horse inspirational that earned a Best Picture Oscar nomination and $120.3 million at the domestic box office) plus the megahit The Blind Side (with Diane Lane instead of Bullock, and a chestnut horse as the inspiring athlete). Didn't happen this weekend — though not every movie has to sprint out of the starting gate to be an ultimate winner. Secretariat could still have, as they say in the racing and movie businesses, long legs; it's just up against longer odds.

On a busy weekend in indie world, It's Kind of a Funny Story, starring The Hangover's Zach Galifianakis and Julia Roberts' niece Emma, had a wide debut on 742 screens and pulled in an O.K. $2 million. In platform openings, Stone, a thriller with a big-money cast (Robert De Niro, Edward Norton, Milla Jovovich) doing pro bono work, earned $73,000 in six theaters; the John Lennon teen biopic Nowhere Boy opened on four screens to $56,000 (not exactly a yeah-yeah-yeah number); the Brit social comedy Tamara Drewe got a punch in the nose, with only $19,300 in four venues; I Spit on Your Grave dug its own grave, with $33,000 at 12 sites; and the urban satirical GhettoPhysics: Will the Real Pimps and Hos Please Stand Up? boasted the year's best movie title but could squeeze only $10,200 out of nine theaters. Clearly, it did not reach its core constituency.

The big indie news was Inside Job, Charles Ferguson's critically adored documentary about the financial collapse, which earned a bullish $42,000 in just two theaters. The film thus joins two other docs doing premium business. Waiting for "Superman", the how-can-we-fix-our-public-schools? plaint, finished a smart 16th for the weekend, with $635,000 in 103 theaters, for a three-week cume of $1.4 million. And Catfish, the possibly true tale of a photographer who finds a mysterious soul mate on Facebook, passed the $2 million mark in its fourth weekend. For many curious filmgoers, Catfish is serving as a double feature with The Social Network. We just can't tell you how it's playing in Wichita.

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, $15.5 million; $46.1 million, second week
2. Life as We Know It, $14.6 million, first weekend
3. Secretariat, $12.6 million, first weekend
4. Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole, $7 million; $39.4 million, third week
5. My Soul to Take, $6.9 million, first weekend
6. The Town, $6.35 million; $73.8 million, fourth week
7. Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, $4.6 million; $43.7 million, third week
8. Easy A, $4.2 million; $48.1 million, fourth week
9. Case 39, $2.6 million; $9.6 million, second week
10. You Again, $2.5 million; $20.7 million, third week