Who dominated the movies this weekend on the storm-battered East Coast? To quote an old Jim Carrey film: me, myself and Irene. And you can leave out the me and myself.
The summer's-end box office, which traditionally sags as families get ready for school openings and studios oblige by releasing subpar fare, took another hit with the onset of Hurricane Irene, whose expected enormity persuaded state and city officials to close highways and public transportation services. More than 1,000 theaters shuttered in the Northeast, putting a fatal gash in the movie grosses in New York City, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Boston and Washington, D.C. Bob Berney, head of the indie distributor FilmDistrict, reported that at the E-Walk multiplex on Times Square whose 13 auditoriums might take in $500,000 on a good weekend the total "gross was $20,800 on Friday and $0 on Saturday." Some 50 million potential customers were home-bound by Irene, and Governor Chris Christie's instructions to sunbathing New Jerseyans to "Get the hell off the beach" translated up and down the seaboard as "Stay the hell out of movie theaters."
Simple math indicates that about 250 million Americans were not in Irene's path, and thus free to see movies. Most of them didn't; the whole country seemed mired in a tropical depression. The Help, the inspir-race-tional drama that has become the surprise upmarket hit of the summer, earned $14.3 million, according to early studio estimates, and again finished No. 1 at North American theaters. Of three new releases fighting for scraps, the Zoe Saldana action drama Columbiana took the No. 2 slot with $10.3 million the lowest take in at least a year for a top-opening debut picture with the horror film Don't Be Afraid of the Dark in third place at $8.7 million and the Paul Rudd comedy Our Idiot Brother in fifth at $6.6 million.
The holdover hit Rise of the Planet of the Apes, with an early number of $8.65 million, was challenging Don't Be Afraid of the Dark for the third spot. The figures that studios issue on Sunday are guesstimates under normal circumstances; but this weekend the numbers crunchers must also attend to weather forecasts and bureaucratic caution. New York City officials announced this afternoon that subway service, which they suspended at noon on Saturday, would not resume today; that meant the big midtown movie houses might remain closed. New Yorkers will have to go to their local theaters if they want to see the films not many folks went to see elsewhere. Final numbers for the box-office weekend will be issued Monday.
Pickin's are usually slim in late August, but not this scrawny. The same weekend in 2010 hatched two new films, Takers (also with Saldana) and The Last Exorcism, that earned more than $20 million each. Columbiana, French producer Luc Besson's latest stab at an action franchise (after Taxi, Transporter and District B13) reached just half that number though its robust A-minus rating in CinemaScore's poll of exiting moviegoers, and its fairly high attendance by women (57%) and those over 25 (65%), indicate the movie may stick around, at least through Labor Day. By contrast, Berney's Don't Be Afraid of the Dark, which had been aimed at the urban audiences whose theaters were shuttered, pulled a dolorous C-minus CinemaScore, and My Idiot Brother a C-plus. It's entirely possible that fewer people went to Rudd's indie comedy this weekend than saw the streaker upstage a hurricane report yesterday on the Weather Channel.
East Coast indie filmgoers, fleeing lowland areas for higher ground, had no chance to see Higher Ground, the drama about faith and faith-questioning that starred and was directed by indie queen Vera Farmiga. Higher Ground opened at two Manhattan theaters Friday and closed Saturday. Its national gross, of $22,905 at three venues (the third in Los Angeles), thus gives little clue to the movie's potential. For a clearer view, come back on a drier weekend. The Iranian Circumstance, opening at seven theaters (four in L.A., three in N.Y.C.), took in a modest $43,586. In wider releases, Sarah's Key, the French-language film starring Kristin Scott Thomas, amassed $636,000 on 272 screens and passed the $4 million mark.
Next comes the Labor Day weekend historically the year's weakest. But studio accountants will have to dream up new excuses for their box-office failures. They won't be able to sing "Goodnight, Irene."
Here are the Sunday estimates of this weekend's top-grossing pictures in North American theaters, as reported by Box Office Mojo:
1. The Help, $14.3 million; $96.6 million, third week
2. Columbiana, $10.3 million, first weekend
3. Don't Be Afraid of the Dark, $8.689 million, first weekend
4. Rise of the Planet of the Apes, $8.65 million; $148.5 million, fourth week
5. Our Idiot Brother, $6.6 million, first weekend
6. Spy Kids: All the Time in the World, $5.7 million; $21.7 million, second week
7. The Smurfs, $4.8 million; $126 million, fifth week
8. Conan the Barbarian, $3.1 million; $16.6 million, second week
9. Fright Night, $3 million; $14.2 million, second week
10. Crazy, Stupid, Love., $2.9 million; $69.5 million, fifth week