Box Office: Green Hornet Buzzes Over a Dilapidated Dilemma

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Jaimie Trueblood / Sony Pictures

Jay Chou (left) and Seth Rogen star in Columbia Pictures' action film The Green Hornet.

In the big new movies released this weekend, Seth Rogen proved himself a comic-book superhero — of the doofus variety — while Vince Vaughn and Kevin James stubbed all four toes. But neither The Green Hornet nor The Dilemma could entice audiences to the extent of films released over the Martin Luther King, Jr., holiday weekend in the past few years. Despite solid showings from a quartet of films with Oscar ambitions, total revenue was down about 25% from the same weekend last year. Writes Box Office Mojo's Brandon Gray: "This is shaping up to be the least-attended MLK weekend since the mid-1990s."

Rogen's rowdy PG-13 update of The Green Hornet earned $34 million in the first three days of the long weekend to lead the box office at North American theaters, according to early studio estimates. (The full four-day tallies will be published Tuesday.) Based on Fran Striker's 1930s radio drama, which also inspired two 1940s movie serials and a late-'60s TV show with Bruce Lee as Kato, the new version had a budget of about $110 million, some of it spent on last-minute reshoots and a retrofitting to the 3-D format, which accounted for 69% of the Friday-to-Sunday take. The movie's mostly male audience gave it a so-so B rating from CinemaScore. Rogen and Sony, the film's distributor, would like this to be a franchise title, but the early numbers wouldn't lead any studio to greenlight a sequel.

The Dilemma, director Ron Howard's comedy-drama about a man (Vaughn) agonizing over whether to tell his best friend and business partner (James) about an unfaithful spouse, earned a meager $17.4 million in its first three days. That's about half of Vaughn's usual opening numbers (for the likes of Wedding Crashers, The Break-Up, Four Christmases and Couples Retreat). It's also about half of James's co-starring efforts with Adam Sandler (I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry, Grown Ups) and well under the $31.8 million opening, exactly two years ago, for James' solo-starring Paul Blart: Mall Cop. How does the pairing of two top comedians result in half the gross? Because moviegoers know what they want to see before they see it, and The Dilemma promised nothing but guilty secrets, ethical angst and lying to loved ones — things most people can get at home for free.

For some Americans, the MLK holiday might be an occasion for reflection on the issues of racial intolerance and gun violence. For Hollywood, it's the new year's first chance to grab some major dough. In 2009 the four new films ( Paul Blart, My Bloody Valentine, Notorious and Hotel for Dogs) grossed $90 million the first three days of the weekend, and about $110 million for the full holiday skein. Last year at this time, The Book of Eli, starring Denzel Washington, earned about the same as The Green Hornet, and Peter Jackson's The Lovely Bones, in its first weekend of wide release, more than matched The Dilemma's take. But there was also a film called Avatar, which in its fifth weekend earned a galactic $42.8 million on its way to all-time-champion status. The mainstream holdovers of Christmas 2010, Little Fockers (sixth place) and TRON: Legacy (seventh), can't come near Avatar's incredible staying power.

But this weekend's top 10 had something the chart-busters of earlier years lacked: four films that are likely to be among the 10 finalists for Best Picture when the Oscar nominations are announced next week, and which have already established themselves as audience favorites. In just 24 days of release, the Coen brothers' revisionist version of True Grit has exceeded by $50 million the total take of their previous all-time grosser, the Best Picture-winning No Country for Old Men. The gritty Western will keep shooting straight into blockbuster territory at least until Oscar Night, Feb. 27 — when its tyro star, 14-year-old Hailee Steinfeld, could win a come-from-nowhere statuette for Best Supporting Actress.

The King's Speech, whose star, Colin Firth, is a near-lock for a Best Actor Academy award, expanded to 1,543 theaters in its eighth week of a platform release, and finished fifth, with a total so far of $44.6 million. Right behind it, in sixth place, was the ballet thriller Black Swan, which has copped Natalie Portman the diva's share of critics' awards for Best Actress. With $73 million in the till, it's Portman's highest grossing non-Star Wars movie, besting the $70.5 million V for Vendetta accumulated in 2006. The Fighter is another pinchpenny production (it cost $25 million to The King's Speech's $15 million and Black Swan's $13 million) with Oscar prospects: Christian Bale is a sure shot as Best Supporting Actor. The true-life boxing drama took ninth place this weekend and has earned $65.8 million.

Vince Vaughn and Kevin James can look at those numbers and weep. Or they may decide that, if they want to earn some short-term money and long-term esteem, they should renounce big budgets and go indie.

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

1. The Green Hornet, $34 million, first weekend
2. The Dilemma, $17.4 million, first weekend
3. True Grit, $11.2 million; $126.4 million, fourth week
4. The King's Speech, $9.1 million; $44.6 million, eighth week
5. Black Swan, $8.1 million; $73 million, seventh week
6. Little Fockers, $7.1 million; $134.2 million, week
7. TRON: Legacy, $4.7 million; $156.9 million, week
8. Yogi Bear, $5.3 million; $82.1 million, week
9. The Fighter, $5.1 million; $65.8 million, week
10. Season of the Witch, $4.5 million; $18 million, week