'Twas the week before Christmas in the movie salon,
And the biggest 3-D creature stirring was TRON,
While How Do You Know had a start worse than wan;
It lost to The Fighter and even Black Swan.
Pushing the right buttons for a contemporary action fantasy with 3-D special effects, TRON Legacy earned $43.6 million to win the pre-Christmas weekend at the North American box office, according to early studio estimates. Jeff Bridges, 61, costars with a computer-rendered 40-year-old Bridges, in a film whose most receptive demographic was adult males. If they weren't in the malls buying video games for their sons or themselves they went to see Disney's 28-years-later sequel to its prototype guy-caught-inside-a-video-game movie. Will the expected fan-kid audience show up en masse over the holidays, and push the ultimate gross from solid to spectacular? We'll see next weekend, when the competition heats up with Little Fockers, Gulliver's Travels and a remake of True Grit, starring... Jeff Bridges. TRON, Grit, Saturday Night Live: the old guy is everywhere.
Older males might have wanted to escape shopping detail, but kids saw little reason to catch Yogi Bear, which cadged just $16.7 million. The big-screen version of Hanna-Barbera's 1961 TV show, with Dan Ackroyd and Justin Timberlake contributing the voices of Yogi and Boo Boo, took in only about a third of the opening-weekend grosses for the two movie updates of the Alvin and the Chipmunks, also based on a half-century-old franchise.
Fact is, on a weekend whose biggest day offered virtually no competition from TV sports (and why doesn't the NFL air some big games on mid-Dec. Saturdays?), the mass audience had few lures to take in a picture. Total theatrical revenue was down about 4% from the same frame last year when Avatar, the original TRON's distant descendant in the cyber-movie genre, opened with $77 million, or more than the top three films made this time. The current weekend's No. 3 finisher was The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, which dropped 48% from last weekend's opener and is lagging far behind its two previous adaptations of the C.S. Lewis books. Dawn Treader is doing better abroad; it earned about $80 million in its first full week of foreign release.
Specialty films with Oscar hopes enjoyed a much warmer reception. The Fighter, the true-life boxing epic that earned Golden Globe nominations for its quartet of stars Mark Wahlberg, Christian Bale, Amy Adams and Melissa Leo expanded in its second week from four theaters to 2,500, and earned a TKO $12.4 million, for fourth place. And Black Swan, with Natalie Portman as a ballerina dancing her way to dementia, increased its number of venues tenfold, to 959 screens, and still amassed a spectacular $8.3 million. How spectacular? Black Swan, in its third week, beat the weekend's third debut film in wide release, How Do You Know, despite being on only 40% as many screens and coming in at one-ninth the budget.
How Do You Know, the latest effort from TV and rom-com movie master James L. Brooks (Terms of Endearment, Broadcast News, As Good as It Gets), earned a paltry $7.6 million, and garnered a near-libelous C-minus from the CinemaScore poll of exiting moviegoers worse than Brüno! The Brooks bomb had a sibling-in-disaster to another Sony comedy, Did You Hear About the Morgans?, which opened exactly a year ago to similar critical drubbing and a Scroogey $6.6 million. The only difference: How Do You Know cost twice as much to make: about $120 million to $58 million. There's flop, and then there's floppissimo.
What lessons can be taken? That Paul Rudd, reliable second banana to Steve Carell and the Judd Apatow stable of young comics, is not a box-office lure on his own; and that Reese Witherspoon, bless her, is not a movie star. The perky blond's only openings of more than $20 million were in her early blush of fame in the 2001-03 period when Legally Blonde and its sequel and Sweet Home Alabama all opened with $20-million-plus weekends and together grossed more than $300 million domestic and in two movies (Walk the Line and Four Christmases) where she took second billing to compelling male leads (Joaquin Phoenix as Johnny Cash and Vince Vaughn as himself).
Except in his ego, Brooks isn't hurting; he still gets plenty of acclaim, and untold quillions in take-home, as the co-creator and executive producer of The Simpsons. But movie studios will think twice before spending nine figures on a plain old non-effects romantic comedy not when relatively inexpensive fare like The Fighter and Black Swan can humiliate it at the box office.
And I heard moguls say, as they sipped their merlot,
"Say yes to Black Swan, no to How Do You Know."
Here are the Sunday estimates of this weekend's top-grossing pictures in North American theaters, as reported by Box Office Mojo:
1. TRON Legacy, $43.6 million, first weekend
2. Yogi Bear, $16.7 million, first weekend
3. The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, $12.4 million; $42.8 million, second week
4. The Fighter, $12.4 million, second weekend; $12.6 million, second week
5. The Tourist, $8.7 million; $30.8 million, second week
6. Tangled, $ 8.7 million; $127.8 million, fourth week
7. Black Swan, $8.3 million; $15.7 million, third week
8. How Do You Know, $ 7.6 million, first week
9. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, $4.8 million; $265.6 million, fifth week
10. Unstoppable, $1.8 million; $77.3 million, fifth week