Suddenly, it's 1979, when Steven Spielberg was the kid with the magic touch, and science fiction movies invested their alien encounters with emotional uplift. Super 8, the J.J. Abrams creature feature set in that more innocent time and produced by Spielberg and directly inspired by the young master's Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial finished first at the North American box office with a $37 million opening weekend, according to early studio estimates. That number exceeded Paramount's conservative prediction of $30 million and was close to the forecasts of most industry handicappers, except for Forbes.com's Jason Raznick, who hallucinated an opening of between $70 million and $85 million. The film did super, but not that super.
For a movie so widely hyped and critically acclaimed (82% on Rotten Tomatoes reviewers' aggregate site), the opening-weekend take for Super 8 seems modest compared with the recent $80-million-plus debuts for Fast Five, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides and The Hangover Part II. And indeed Abrams' scare-and-snuggle thriller romance posted the lowest gross for a No. 1 film since the second weekend of Rio (April 22-24), and the puniest total for a movie that opened in the top slot since Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Rodrick Rules (March 18-20).
But for a start-from-scratch live-action movie with no stars, and based on no famous source novel or comic book or kids' book, Super 8 did fine. Original projects are anomalies in the blockbuster summer season when, at movie theaters as well as on vacations, people prefer visiting friends and families. Last year, for example, every No. 1 film from late April through the July 4th holiday weekend was either a sequel (Iron Man, Shrek, Toy Story, Eclipse) or a remake (A Nightmare on Elm Street, The Karate Kid). Bucking that trend, Super 8 parlayed its mysterioso marketing, plus Abrams's éclat from Lost and Alias on TV and the Star Trek reboot on the big screen, into that rare phenomenon, an auteur hit.
O.K., forget the competition with sequels, remakes and cartoons. How does Super 8 stack up against other startup monster movies? Well, its Friday-to-Sunday take (it cadged another $1 million from Thursday-evening preview screenings) was below the $40 million scared up back in January 2008 by the Abrams-produced monster movie Cloverfield. At North American theaters, that film eventually earned $80 million, only twice its opening figure, which means the thrill quickly wore off. If Super 8 means to be a giant moneymaker, it will have to mimic the sleeper hit of summer 2009, District 9, the South African uggy-alien parable, made for just $30 million, that took in $37.4 million in its first three days but tripled that early number with a $115.6 million domestic total. Super 8, with a production budget between $50 million and $75 million, plus a relatively thrifty $25-million marketing campaign, would be considered a semi-smash if it finished north of $125 million.
[MONDAY UPDATE: Final figures released this afternoon show that the top three films finished below their Sunday estimates. Super 8 took in $35.45 million almost exactly what another alien invasion film, Battle Los Angeles, earned on its first weekend in mid-March. X-Men: First Class grossed $24.1 million, and The Hangover Part II $17.7 million.]
And if you're wondering how the movie's obvious progenitor did in its opening frame back in June 1982, E.T. earned $11.8 million (about $33.5 million at today's ticket prices), though in just a third of the 3,379 theaters that welcomed Super 8 this weekend. E.T.'s final domestic take: $435.1 million, or $1.1 billion today. In real dollars, Spielberg's boy-and-his-pet-alien fantasy is the fourth highest grossing film of all time.
Elsewhere, the big movies showed impressive staying power: the current top 10 boasts at least one film from each of the past seven weeks. Three films crossed the $200-million domestic mark: Fast Five (which has picked up another $373 million abroad), Pirates 4 (plus $615 million in offshore revenue) and The Hangover II (with a $151 million foreign take). Bridesmaids, the R-rated wedding-panic comedy that is, in effect, a Hangover for the ladies, continues to flaunt its long legs, with just a 15% drop in its fifth weekend and a $123.9 million cume. The only flop in the top 10: Judy Moody and the NOT Bummer Summer, which had exactly that as it opened in seventh place with $6.2 million a meager amount for this adaptation of one of Megan McDonald's tween-girls best-sellers.
In the specialty houses, The Trip, a road-movie comedy with Brit TV wits Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, opened to a tasty $84,600 at six theaters. Terrence Malick's Cannes-winner The Tree of Life expanded from 20 to 47 venues and finished 11th with the weekend's top per-theater gross. And, in just its fourth weekend of limited release, Midnight in Paris time-traveled into 944 venues for a très-bien $6.1 million. It has already become the third highest-grossing Woody Allen film (after Vicky Cristina Barcelona and Match Point) since Hannah and Her Sisters 25 years ago. Given Midnight's big mo, Hannah's $40-million total is not out of reach.
Here are the Sunday estimates of this weekend's top-grossing pictures in North American theaters, as reported by Box Office Mojo:
1. Super 8, $37 million, first three days; $38 million, first four days
2. X-Men: First Class, $25 million; $98.9 million, second week
3. The Hangover Part II, $18.5 million; $216.6 million, third week
4. Kung Fu Panda 2, $16.6 million; $126.9 million, third week
5. Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, $10.8 million; $208.8 million, fourth week
6. Bridesmaids, $10.15 million; $123.9 million, fifth week
7. Judy Moody and the NOT Bummer Summer, $6.2 million, first weekend
8. Midnight in Paris, $6.1 million; $14.2 million, fourth week
9. Thor, $2.4 million; $173.6 million, sixth week
10. Fast Five, $1.7 million; $205.1 million, seventh week