Is it Labor Day already? The weekly onslaught of summer blockbusters traditionally diminishes in late August, when kids head back to school and studios dump their orphan projects. This year, though, Hollywood either set its rummage sale a few weeks early or, more likely, misjudged the popular appeal of some leftover inventory: the horror film Final Destination 5, the R-rated heist comedy 30 Minutes or Less and the TV-musical transfer Glee: The 3D Concert Movie. Only The Help, the multiracial inspirational based on Kathryn Stockett's best seller, made noise, and the joyful racket could keep ringing throughout the fall and into awards season.
In its second frame, Rise of the Planet of the Apes earned $27.5 million and finished first at the North American box office, according to early studio estimates. The win made the chimp prequel just the third film this summer (after Thor and Transformers: Dark of the Moon) to take the top spot for more than one weekend. Apes dipped about 50% from last week and would not have repeated at the top if it had faced the strong competition that usually debuts in the second week of August. This time last year, the alter kocker action film The Expendables opened to $34.8 million; in 2009, the big weekend premiere was District 9, at $37.4 million; in 2008, Tropic Thunder, with a $25.8 million debut; and in 2007, Rush Hour 3, with $49.1 million. All those films eventually finished with domestic earnings of more than $100 million a number that FD5, 30 Minutes and Glee 3D may not be able to match in total.
In a feat of smart counterprogramming, DreamWorks-Disney opened The Help. Set in 1960s Mississippi, the drama about the bond of three women one white (Emma Stone) and two African-American (Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer) grossed $25.5 million over the weekend and $35.4 million since its Wednesday debut. (Rise earned $36.7 million in the same period.) The Help's audience reflected the onscreen demographic: 74% of its attendees were women, 60% over 35 years of age, and all segments gave it an ecstatic A-plus CinemaScore rating. Adapted and directed by Stockett's handpicked friend Tate Taylor, the film attracted both the Red Hat Society contingent and the Tyler Perry regulars. Disney flacks noted that The Help played especially strongly in the South: the movie's five highest-grossing theaters were in Memphis; Jackson, Miss.; Chicago; Atlanta and Dallas.
Among late-summer films based on best sellers and sold to women, the movie's first-weekend gross was similar to those of 2009's Julie & Julia ($20 million) and the Julia Roberts film Eat Pray Love ($23.1 million), which opened this weekend last year. But The Help's five-day haul topped the $33.4 million amassed in the entire commercial run of Doubt, for which Davis received an Academy Award nomination (as did Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Amy Adams). Expect Davis to be an Oscar finalist again next year. Gleaning a solid 73% approval score on the Rotten Tomatoes aggregation of reviews and garnering great word of mouth, The Help could become a rare interracial smash hit like The Blind Side or a Best Picture winner like Driving Miss Daisy. The movie's éclat certainly helps swell the career arc of the 22-year-old Stone, after Zombieland, Easy A and Crazy Stupid Love. She's got the Spider-Man reboot coming next July and, in 2013, The Gangster Squad, which will co-star Ryan Gosling and Sean Penn and is to be directed by oops 30 Minutes or Less's Ruben Fleischer.
Fleischer had a hot hand two years back, when he cast Stone and Jesse Eisenberg as two of the last humans left in Zombieland. But 30 Minutes, starring Eisenberg as a kidnapping victim forced to rob a bank to stay alive, earned a popgun $13 million; that was far below the expectations of Sony-Columbia, which saw the cranky-buddy film finish fifth, behind the studio's kids' comedy The Smurfs, now in its third week of release. On CinemaScore, 30 Minutes received an A rating from the under-18 set (how'd they get into this R-rated movie?), a B-plus from males and, overall, a moderate B. That suggests there were a lot of females rancorously asking their beaus, "Why'd you bring me to this thing?"