Desperate to lure big crowds back to movie houses, Hollywood dispatched two of its favorite species of box office commandos: aliens and werewolves. The maneuver ended in a standstill bordering on retreat, and the North American movie business remained stuck in its months-long trough.
Two of the three new films in wide release offered variant species of extraterrestrials: nasty warriors for the teens in the action film Battle: Los Angeles and adorable Martian babies in Disney's 3-D motion-capture comedy Mars Needs Moms. Only one group survived: Battle: L.A. topped the box office with an O.K. $36 million, according to early studio estimates, while Mars Needs Moms tested barren, earning a scandalously low $6.8 million.
Nor was the werewolf movie a howling success: Red Riding Hood, the fairy-tale romantic horror film that was expected to land in the high teens by appealing to girls, underperformed at $14.1 million. A Twilight clone directed by Catherine Hardwicke, who did the first film in that series, and starring Amanda Seyfried, Red Riding Hood finished third behind last week's champ, the Johnny Depp animated western comedy Rango.
Battle: L.A. is a World War II saga with a sci-fi twist: a bunch of inglourious basterds (actually, one gutsy unit of Marines) fights to keep an army of space invaders from overrunning Santa Monica. Produced for a bit less than $100 million, the film earned the contempt of film critics, who don't matter, and a CinemaScore rating of B from moviegoers under 18, who do. One problem: there weren't enough kids to push Battle: L.A. into the stratosphere. More than half of its audience was older than 25 yet another indication that kids are choosing free entertainment on social networks over the kind they have to pay for at theaters.
Overseas, where the film is called World Invasion: Battle Los Angeles, it registered robust numbers: $16.7 million in 33 territories, with No. 1 openings in the U.K., India, Russia and South Korea. In a poignant coincidence, the movie announces that aliens have created a catastrophe in coastal areas around the world, including Japan. Alas, real-life disaster trumped the movie's most apocalyptic imaginings.
Last week, NASA scientists rejected as false a new study claiming evidence of alien life. If there is such a thing on Mars, it didn't interest moviegoers, who boycotted producer Robert Zemeckis' version of a children's book by Bloom County's Berkeley Breathed. Made for about $150 million and directed by veteran animator Simon Wells, Mars Needs Moms may have endured the lamest opening for a Disney animated feature since 1990, when The Rescuers Down Under took in $3.5 million (about $6 million today), but in just 1,230 theaters to Mars' 3,117. CinemaScore pollees gave the film the same overall B rating that Battle: L.A. got, but the general audience, being largely absentee, gave it an F.
This might seem like a typical box office mix of good, bad and ugly, except that the bad and ugly have outnumbered the good since before last Christmas. This weekend's total theatrical gross is estimated at $126.5 million, which is off about 14% from the same frame in 2010. In 16 of the past 17 weeks, weekend revenue has fallen below the take of the year before. And that one time when it didn't was a fluke, as Valentine's Day fell on Presidents' Day weekend, giving people two reasons date night and a holiday to go to the movies.
Worse, from Hollywood's perspective, is the blockbuster drought. Hit movies ones that gross $50 million or more in a weekend bring customers to the multiplexes, and if those customers can't get a ticket to the big smash, they pay to see something else. That buoyant breeze has been absent so far this year, with not a single film boasting weekend earnings of $40 million. Last year, that happened on seven of the first 11 weekends: three times with Avatar, once with the romantic comedy Valentine's Day, once with the Scorsese-DiCaprio thriller Shutter Island and twice with Tim Burton's Disney remake of Alice in Wonderland. On five weekends of the first 11 last year, the winner's gross topped $50 million; three times it bested $60 million; and Alice's opening weekend took a Jabberwock-size haul of $116.1 million. No movie this year has opened to even a third of that amount. See how bad things are?
In the micro-bank business of indie films, Jane Eyre opened with a blustery $182,317 on four screens in New York City and Los Angeles, for the year's highest per-screen average ($45,579). The gothic romance, starring Alice's Mia Wasikowska and Inglourious Basterds co-star Michael Fassbender, will go wider next weekend, when its competition will include the R-rated comedy Paul, starring Seth Rogen as ... an alien. There's Hollywood wisdom for you: when Plan B doesn't work, try it again.
Here are the Sunday estimates of this weekend's top-grossing pictures in North American theaters, as reported by Box Office Mojo:
1. Battle: Los Angeles, $36 million, first weekend
2. Rango, $23.05 million; $68.7 million, second week
3. Red Riding Hood, $14.1 million, first weekend
4. The Adjustment Bureau, $11.5 million; $38.5 million, second week
5. Mars Needs Moms, $6.8 million, first weekend
6. Hall Pass, $5.105 million; $34.9 million, third week
7. Beastly, $5.09 million; $17 million, second week
8. Just Go with It, $4 million; $94 million, fifth week
9. The King's Speech, $3.6 million; $129.1 million, 16th week
10. Gnomeo & Juliet, $3.5 million; $89 million, fifth week