Box Office: Limitless Wins, But Where Are the Kids?

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John Baer / Relativity Media / AP

Bradley Cooper, left, and Andrew Howard in a scene from Limitless

Perhaps young people were at home watching the NCAA basketball tournament. Could be they were Tweeting and Friending. Or maybe they're saving their discretionary entertainment budget for the summer blockbusters. Whatever the explanation, teens have been AWOL from movie houses so far this year, and as a result the box office is in a prolonged slump. For the 16th time in the last 17 weeks, the take was below that of the same weekend last year. We're nearly three months into 2011 and no new film has earned as much as $100 million in domestic theaters. Last year three movies — Alice in Wonderland, Valentine's Day and Shutter Island — had sprinted past the nine-figure mark, and Alice topped $250 million in its first three weeks. Comparing these seasonal stats gives Hollywood a severe case of March Sadness.

At least Limitless, the speculative thriller about a pill that allows a frustrated novelist (The Hangover's Bradley Cooper) to use 100% of his brain power, realized its full potential. It exceeded industry predictions to win the weekend with $19 million at North American theaters, according to early studio estimates. With the holdovers Rango and Battle Los Angeles finishing second and third, the two other new films had to fight for scraps. The Lincoln Lawyer, with Matthew McConaughey as a flashy attorney defending a murder suspect, is currently in fourth place, a smidge above Paul, the comic fantasy of two English fantasy comix creators who meet a pot-smoking alien voiced by Seth Rogen. But races this close are usually determined only when the final numbers are announced Monday.

[MONDAY UPDATE: The ranking of the top 10 films remained the same, but in most cases the actual figures were $100,000 to $200,000 below the Sunday estimates. According to the final weekend counts, Limitless earned $18.9 million, Rango $15.1 million, Battle L.A. $14.5 million, The Lincoln Lawyer $13.2 million and Paul $13 million.]

Limitless was supposed to determine whether Cooper is a bankable movie star. Borderline-handsome, and sporting a cockiness that can be ingratiating or raspy, he had top billing in The Hangover; but that was a three-guys-and-a-baby smash. Since then the actor has worked mostly in groups, enlisting in The A Team (behind Liam Neeson) and in the ensemble date movie Valentine's Day. His one true male lead was in All About Steve, a Sandra Bullock rom-com that came out between her megahits The Proposal and The Blind Side and still managed to tank. Audiences this weekend could have been attracted by the one-pill-makes-you-smarter premise — a lure similar to the memory secrets described in Joshua Foer's current nonfiction best-seller Moonwalking With Einstein (itself recently bought for a movie version). So Cooper could be either a stand-alone leading man or one of those reliable second-tier types who luck into a popular film, as Aaron Eckhart just did with Battle L.A.

All three of the weekend's new pictures earned solid ratings from the CinemaScore poll of exiting moviegoers: Limitless and Paul with B-pluses, The Lincoln Lawyer pulling an A-minus. They just couldn't bring in the kids. Sixty-nine percent of the Limitless audience was over 25 years of age, as was an astounding 94% of the Lincoln Lawyer jury. (Babysitters must have made a bundle this weekend.) Even for Paul, which explicitly targeted fanboys and Rogen roadies, the over-25 percentage was a worrying 58. The two non-alien leads, Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, who had starred in the cult faves Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, were expected to draw a bigger crowd. As indicated by the wan showings of Kick-Ass and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World last year, the fanboy impact may be as thin as it is deep. And, as the abysmal grosses of Disney's Mars Needs Moms should have proved by now, enough with the aliens.

Among the specialty films, Jane Eyre expanded to 26 theaters in its second week and earned a blustery $478,000; the Brontë romance could be the next indie hit. Win Win, the sports-inspirational movie from writer-director Thomas McCarthy (The Station Agent, The Visitor), celebrated a muscular opening of $154,000 in just five venues. And The King's Speech finally dropped out of the top 10 after 11 weeks there. The Oscar-winning flick has earned $132.4 million since it premiered last Thanksgiving. One of the rare movies to become a smash without ever finishing higher than fourth at the weekend box office, the Weinstein film follows the indie success in 2008-9 of Slumdog Millionaire (which one week finished as high as third place) and the 2007-08 Juno (which got as high as second). Just shows what an underdog story that gets great word-of-mouth can do, once in a blue moon, without the kids.

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

1. Limitless, $19 million, first weekend
2. Rango, $15.3 million; $92.6 million, third week
3. Battle Los Angeles, $14.6 million; $60.6 million, second week
4. The Lincoln Lawyer, $13.4 million, first weekend
5. Paul, $13.2 million, first weekend
6. Red Riding Hood, $7.3 million; $26 million, second week
7. The Adjustment Bureau, $5.9 million; $48.8 million, third week
8. Mars Needs Moms, $5.3 million; $15.4 million, second week
9. Beastly, $3.3 million $22.2 million, third week
10. Hall Pass, $2.6 million; $39.6 million, fourth week