America always spends Super Bowl Sunday watching the big game. And this year, moviegoers apparently spent the entire weekend waiting for it. Theater revenue was down 25% from the same time last year, as audiences found something else, anything else, to do but see a movie. In the words of old Hollywood mogul Samuel Goldwyn, they stayed away in droves.
The Roommate, a college-set rip-off of the 1992 horror thriller Single White Female, took in $15.6 million, according to early studio estimates, to win the weekend at the North American box office. Starring Leighton Meester (from TV's Gossip Girl) as the predator and Minka Kelly (a Friday Night Lights graduate and Esquire magazine's Sexiest Woman Alive) as the predatee, the movie appealed to its core demographic: 65% of those buying tickets were female, and 61% were under 21. The weekend receipts nearly covered The Roommate's $16 million budget, and in the sexy-ladies-doing-nasty-things-to-each-other genre, the movie grossed in three days almost as much as the lifetime domestic total of Jennifer's Body, the similarly themed horror comedy from 2009 starring certified hotties Megan Fox and Amanda Seyfried.
The only way out was down for Sanctum, which took second place with a dank $9.2 million. Based on the true story of Australian explorers trapped in a treacherous cave system way under Down Under, the movie had no recognizable names in the cast and crew except for executive producer James Cameron, who lent the production team the 3-D technology he used in Avatar. The Aussie drama's audience was older than The Roommate's (65% were 30 and over) and skewed to women (53% female), but they didn't like what they saw: the film received a disapproving C-plus average from CinemaScore's poll of exiting moviegoers. Any way you tabulate it, Sanctum caved.
Industry savants shrugged off the weekend as Hollywood's annual case of Super Bowl blues, but that's bogus. This year's two highest-grossing films earned a cumulative $24.8 million. During the same time last year, the top two films Seyfried's Dear John in its debut weekend and Avatar in its eighth earned $53.3 million, or more than twice as much. In 2009, the top tandem (Taken and Paul Blart: Mall Cop) pulled in $38.6 million, and in 2008 Miley Cyrus' Hannah Montana concert film amassed $31.1 million on its own. Not since 2002, when the negligible Darkness Falls and Kangaroo Jack led the box office, have the top two pictures on a Super Bowl weekend taken in less money than this year's did, and ticket prices were way lower nine years ago. So don't blame football. Blame the movies as well as a slightly depressed market. Without Avatar's gigantic earnings, business so far in 2011 has been far below last year's.
Rather than looking forward to new films, audiences are still catching up with the Oscar contenders that were released late in 2010. The ballet thriller Black Swan, starring presumptive Best Actress winner Natalie Portman, passed the $95 million mark in domestic theaters, even as Portman's newer romantic comedy, No Strings Attached, held well for this weekend's third place. The Fighter (with Best Supporting Actor and Actress awards in store for Christian Bale and Melissa Leo) has taken in $82.5 million so far, and True Grit, with 10 Academy nominations, has outrun all box office expectations, banking $155 million in domestic revenue.
The Oscar bump has also accrued for specialty films with prominent nominations. 127 Hours, starring Best Actor finalist James Franco, vaulted from a modest $118,557 two weeks ago to $2.1 million last weekend and $1.4 million this time; it has earned nearly 30% of its total domestic gross in the past 10 days. Another Best Actor nominee, Javier Bardem, saw strong returns for his Spanish-language drama Biutiful: $771,000 in just 177 theaters. Blue Valentine, which snagged a Best Actress nomination for Michelle Williams, is also attracting visitors, taking in $815,000 on 450 screens this weekend. The dour drama, made for just $1 million, has earned $7.3 million in six weeks of release.
The big beneficiary, though, is The King's Speech, the more or less fact-based drama about English monarch George VI, which finished a robust fourth this weekend. Produced for $15 million, it has already taken in $84.1 million in North America and another $67.4 million abroad. With a record 12 nominations, and several important citations from Hollywood guilds as the best film of 2010, it is likely to keep making money right up through the Oscar ceremony, to be held on Feb. 27.
Academy members are casting their ballots now. Will the movie's sterling box office performance help it win the Academy Award for Best Picture over The Social Network, whose theatrical run is virtually over? That didn't happen last year, when Avatar, king of the real-movie world, lost to the little-seen The Hurt Locker. Momentum counts, though, and the mass audience has clearly fallen in love with The King's Speech. Those factors should boost its chance of winning the film industry's Super Bowl.
Here are the Sunday estimates of this weekend's top-grossing pictures in North American theaters, as reported by Box Office Mojo:
1. The Roommate, $15.6 million, first weekend
2. Sanctum, $9.2 million, first weekend
3. No Strings Attached, $8.4 million; $51.8 million, third week
4. The King's Speech, $8.3 million; $84.1 million, 11th week
5. The Green Hornet, $6.1 million; $87.2 million, fourth week
6. The Rite, $5.6 million; $23.7 million, second week
7. The Mechanic, $5.4 million; $20.1 million, second week
8. True Grit, $$4.75 million; $155 million, seventh week
9. The Dilemma, $3.448 million; $45.7 million, fourth week
10. Black Swan, $3.4 million; $95.9 million, 10th week