The box-office winner was an old-fashioned melodrama whose only star is over 70 and his name isn't Clint Eastwood. The Rite, an exorcism movie starring Anthony Hopkins, 73, earned $15 million, according to early studio estimates, to become the No. 1 attraction in North American theaters this weekend. The rest of the top-10 list comprised the usual January detritus, plus a quartet of Academy Award contenders getting a bump from Tuesday's announcement of the Oscar nominations.
But old things first. Sir Anthony, who's been on screen since the '60s, proved that septuagenarians still have movie muscle when they play to type. As a priest who specializes in exorcisms, and then must himself be exorcised, Hopkins is not Hannibal Lecter here he's closer to his nemesis, the psychic profiler Clarice Starling but by the end of the film he's turned into a bit of a Devil. The Lecter connection was enough to lure a sizable adult demographic to this sedate, PG-13 horror film, with two-thirds of the weekend's audience being 25 or older. And the Catholic angle helped the film appeal to a large Latino audience; the Los Angeles Times reports that The Rite's highest-grossing theater was in heavily Hispanic El Paso.
Last week's winner, the R-rated romantic comedy No Strings Attached, with Natalie Portman and Ashton Kutcher, held on nicely for second place with $13.7 million, registering a modest 30% decline from its opening weekend; and the previous week's No. 1, Seth Rogen's The Green Hornet sagged just 35% to $11.5 million. That left Hornet in a virtual tie with this week's other wide-release newbie, The Mechanic, the latest in Euro-star Jason Statham's string of violent action B-pictures. Considering that this is the first weekend in five months without a meaningful football game on TV (sorry, Pro Bowl, you're just an exhibition), which should have sent the male audience out to prowl the multiplexes, The Mechanic was a slight under-performer. Maybe a lot of the burly dudes who would have seen the movie were at home, digging out from another East Coast snow storm, which dented the Friday-night take in the most populous part of the country.
Yet neither snow, nor sleet, nor Friday Night Lights could keep moviegoers away from old favorites. The Academy Award nominations were announced Tuesday morning, and four of the Best Picture contenders, which have been in theaters for six to 10 weeks, felt that lovely Oscar bump this weekend. People wanted to see the acclaimed films with the stars who are touted to win the trophies: Colin Firth for Best Actor in The King's Speech, Portman for Best Actress in Black Swan, Christian Bale and Melissa Leo for the Supporting statuettes in The Fighter and, the comeliest underdog, 14-year-old Hailee Steinfeld, also for Supporting Actress, in True Grit.
As the new front-runner with 12 nominations, and a surprise win at last night's Directors Guild awards for its helmer Tom Hooper The King's Speech jumped 41% from last weekend to finish fifth in this weekend's box-office sweepstakes. The sixth-place True Grit demonstrated amazing powers of recuperation, slipping just 4% from last weekend's gross and aiming to pass the $150 million mark by Tuesday. In eighth place was Black Swan, Portman's Psycho in tutus, which has earned $90 million; and just behind it was The Fighter, down a mere 2.6% from last week, and with $78.4 million in the bank. That's quite a collective haul for a quartet of films whose thrifty budgets ranged from $13 million (Black Swan) to $38 million (True Grit). Even Blue Valentine, a hard-to-sell marital-breakup drama that snagged a Best Actress nomination for Michelle Williams, had a robust showing of $1.2 million in 415 theaters. Made for a pinchpenny $1 million, Blue Valentine has earned $6 million in just over a month.
Most years, the weekend after the announcement of Oscar finalists finds no more than two top contenders on the box-office top 10. (Last year at this time, the duo was Avatar and Crazy Heart, which won Jeff Bridges his Best Actor award; the year before, Slumdog Millionaire and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button; in 2008, Juno and There Will Be Blood; 2007, Dreamgirls and the Queen; and so on.) But with the expansion of Best Picture nominees from five to 10, the indie-minded distributors of Academy hopefuls have mastered the game of getting their pictures into wide release in a movie month when there's little to talk about but Oscar, Oscar, Oscar. They build their momentum up to Awards nomination day, then reap the benefit from the free, and priceless, publicity attending the announcements.
Left out of the Oscar ballyhoo was the film that, for months, was the Best Picture favorite, The Social Network. It got its own sort of bump this weekend, when Network star Jesse Eisenberg, hosting Saturday Night Live, was joined on-stage by the man he impersonated, Mark Zuckerberg (who gave the movie a one-word review: "Interesting"). That was cool, but it won't appreciably help The Social Network's box office; it opened in October, has essentially completed its run and is now available on DVD. Its producers must be wondering if a film has to open after Thanksgiving to streak confidently toward the Oscar-night finish line. At the moment, it's looking as though The King's Speech, not the Facebook film, is the movie with the biggest poke.
Here are the Sunday estimates of this weekend's top-grossing pictures in North American theaters, as reported by Box Office Mojo:
1. The Rite, $15 million, first weekend
2. No Strings Attached, $13.7 million; $39.7 million, second week
3. The Green Hornet, $11.5 million; $78.8 million, third week
4. The Mechanic, $11.5 million, first weekend
5. The King's Speech, $11.1 million; $72.2 million, tenth week
6. True Grit, $7.6 million; $148.4 million, sixth week
7. The Dilemma, $5.5 million; $40.6 million, third week
8. Black Swan, $5.1 million; $90.7 million, ninth week
9. The Fighter, $4.1 million; $78.4 million, eighth week
10. Yogi Bear, $3.2 million; $92.5 million, seventh week