Box-Office Weekend: Brüno a One-Day Wonder?

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Sacha Baron Cohen as Bruno.

In the old days — like, until yesterday — movie studios judged the success of their big pictures by how much they grossed on the opening weekend. But in the age of Twitter, electronic word-of-mouth is immediate, as early moviegoers tweet their opinions on a film to millions of "followers." Instant-messaging can make or break a film within 24 hours. Friday is the new weekend.

That appears to be the lesson from the studio estimates issued on July 13 for the weekend box office. Brüno, the Sacha Baron Cohen docu-comedy in which an Austrian fashion journalist shoves his flamboyant gayness in the faces and other body parts of unsuspecting Americans, won the weekend with $30.4 million, a bit above most industry expectations for an R-rated provocation whose star was unknown to the mass audience until his Borat became a surprise hit in 2006, earning more than $260 million at theaters worldwide on an $18 million budget. Yet Brüno's box-office decline from Friday to Saturday indicates that the film's brand of outrage was not the sort to please most moviegoers — and that their tut-tutting got around fast. Brüno could be the first movie defeated by the Twitter effect.

As Brüno flounced and floundered with audiences, two other behemoths stood sturdy. In its second weekend, the 3-D cartoon Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs is projected to finish right behind Brüno, at $28.5 million, for a worldwide 10-day gross of $312.5 million. And that overblown toy story, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, has earned more than that just in North America. In fewer than 20 days, the second Transformers has overtaken the first one in its entire domestic theatrical run and entered the all-time top 20, passing every Harry Potter and Pirates of the Caribbean movie. (Is this the crappiest movie in that exalted category? Even worse than the Jar Jar Binks–infected Star Wars: Episode I – The Phanton Menace? Discuss.)

In the niche market of real-people movies, the two wedding-panic comedies, The Proposal and The Hangover, held their audiences, losing only 18% and 12% respectively from the previous weekend. Sandra Bullock's comeback film is well past the $100 million mark, and The Hangover is well past $200 million. Whatever reservations you might have about these movies as works of popular art, the numbers are good news, in the blockbuster-dominated summer market, for the little movies that could. (A new romantic comedy, I Love You, Beth Cooper, raised barely a titter, or a Twitter, pulling in just $5 million.)

Baron Cohen, whose first job after graduating from Cambridge University was as a fashion model, deserves credit for pushing further than he did in Borat. He's beyond brazen in his forced marriage of suicide raids on homophobes and the cartoon mockery of rural Southerners — sort of al-Qaeda and Al Capp. But he and Universal (which paid a hefty $42.5 million for rights to the movie and launched a worldwide marketing campaign that brought the pre-release tab to about $100 million) had two hints that things could go wrong. One was the death of Michael Jackson, which spurred the filmmakers to remove a scene in which Brüno asks La Toya Jackson for the King of Pop's phone number.

The other was the reaction by the gay community to the movie's depiction of an asinine, predatory homosexual. Baron Cohen probably figured that if anyone can take a joke, it's gay people. But the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation was not amused. The film "decreases the public's comfort with gay people," GLAAD president Jarrett Barrios said, adding that some scenes "hit the gay community pretty hard and reinforce some damaging, hurtful stereotypes" — an observation that was recirculated in the Twitterverse. Barrios noted that GLAAD staffers had seen an early cut of the film, and "unfortunately, the scenes that we had the biggest concerns about remained in the film," including one of Brüno having S&M sex with his male assistant and another of Brüno holding his infant son in a hot tub with other adult males.

Yet Universal had high hopes for Brüno's opening weekend. Buoyed by the film's robust $1.6 million at Thursday midnight screenings and impressive pre-buys of tickets on Fandango and other sites, a studio insider told industry blogger Nikki Finke on Friday morning, "If it holds up, we'll do $50 million." The Friday figures supported that optimism: Brüno amassed a sensational $14.4 million. But the movie plummeted nearly 40% its second day, to $8.8 million. Meanwhile, the next five movies on the chart — Ice Age 3, Transformers 2, Public Enemies, The Proposal and The Hangover — all saw substantial increases from Friday to Saturday. (Ice Age actually did better business than Brüno on Saturday.) Worse yet, Brüno's rating by CinemaScore, which polls moviegoers just after they've seen a film, was a C. That pretty much stands for Calamitous.

Hit comedies are supposed to grow their audience, not scare it away. But Brüno had the weekend contours of a gross-out horror movie: the fanboys rush in on Thursday night and Friday, severely depleting the universe of potential customers. Chalk that up to word-of-mouth, viral and virulent. "If you're tweeting," marketing consultant Gordon Paddison told Sharon Waxman of the Wrap, "and people are catching that live and they're out at drinks and were planning on seeing the movie tomorrow — that hurts."

If indeed that's what hurt Brüno, the movie could prove to be a one-day wonder.

Here are the studios' official weekend estimates for the top 10 movies, as reported by Box Office Mojo:

1. Brüno, $30.4 million, first weekend
2. Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs, $28.5 million; $120.6 million, second week
3. Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, $24.2 million; $339.2 million, second week
4. Public Enemies, $14.1 million; $66.5 million, second week
5. The Proposal, $10.5 million; $113.8 million, fourth week
6. The Hangover, $9.3 million; $222.4 million, sixth week
7. I Love You, Beth Cooper, $5 million, first weekend
8. Up, $4.7 million; $273.8 million; seventh week
9. My Sister's Keeper, $4.2 million; $35.8 million, third week
10. The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3, $1.6 million; $61.5 million, fifth week