As expected, Disney's A Christmas Carol opened at number one over the weekend. If the opening weekend number of $30 million feels disappointing, it's only because of the film's excessive cost (about $200 million to make, probably another $100 million to market) and somewhat unreasonable expectations. Christmas movies have never been the whopper-openers that some might think. This was actually the fourth-biggest Christmas-themed opening of all time, behind Jim Carrey's The Grinch ($55 million), Elf ($31.1 million) and last Thanksgiving's Four Christmases ($31 million). This is actually director Robert Zemeckis's biggest opening weekend of all time. The only person who might get tagged as a theoretical slacker is star Jim Carrey, as this is 'merely' his eighth-biggest opening weekend and his ninth $30 million+ opener since 1995.
So on one hand, Zemeckis and Disney have to be praying that this plays more like The Polar Express ($23 million opening, $162 million finish) than Beowulf ($27 million opening, $82 million finish). The Polar Express opened against the second weekend of The Incredibles in November 2004, but played the rest of the year, helped by buzz regarding its truly astonishing and utterly groundbreaking 3D IMAX presentation. Since Christmas-themed movies seem to have decent legs (holiday releases have generally better legs than summer releases), there is hope that this should get to at least $120 million in the US, with $180 million being the best case scenario. Still, Disney surely hopes that this will become a sort of perennial title and I'd imagine much of its animation budget went into the kind of new technology that will be put to use in future projects. Whatever it's going to do, it only has six weeks to get it done, as James Cameron's Avatar will be stealing each and every 3D and IMAX screen come December 18th at 12:01am.
Second place went to the flash-in-the-pan that wasn't; as This Is It dropped just 43% in its second weekend. Disregarding proclamations of doom after its mere $100 million+ worldwide opening weekend, I am frankly shocked that this is holding up as well as it is. The word is truly getting out that it's both respectful to the late singer and a relatively entertaining look at the man at work. With $57 million in just twelve days, it will soon surpass Hanna Montana/Miley Cyrus: Best of Both Worlds 3D as the domestic box office champion concert film (it's already grossed $186 million worldwide). Sony's decision to extend this $60 million acquisition past its limited run and into Thanksgiving has turned out to be a smart one, as the film is now playing to the merely curious as well as the die-hard fans. Third place went to The Men Who Stare at Goats, which opened to $12.7 million. I went into this yesterday, but George Clooney vehicles should not be expected to do anymore than $10-13 million over opening weekend. He may be one of the world's-biggest stars, but he often picks inexpensive, not terribly commercial films over the more populist genres. I hated the film, but it's always good when something outside the mainstream opens well enough to justify its creation. Overture paid just $5 million to acquire this, so congratulations on the upstart studio's second solid hit in the last month (Law Abiding Citizen is currently at $60 million, with just a 18% drop in weekend four).
The Fourth Kind played out a bizarre little trailer and the lack of any UFO-abduction films in nearly seventeen years (Fire in the Sky came out in March of 1993) into a solid $12.2 million opening. If it needs to be said, this was in development long before Paranormal Activity (now at $97 million) hit pay-dirt last month. For the record, I wrote about the trailer way back in mid-August, so any catcalls of the former being a rip-off of the latter should stop right now. Anyway, this Universal acquisition fell short of the opening of the similarly-marketed White Noise ($24 million), which had the advantage of being the first major release of 2005 and the curiosity factor stemming from the casting of the relatively scarce Michael Keaton. Still, this is a cheap film that will be very profitable for all involved. Speaking of cheap films that opened just OK, Richard Kelly's incomprehensible The Box rode a solid trailer and a simple and compelling premise to a $7.5 million opening weekend. The film apparently received an 'F' from CinemaScore, and I can understand why (the first half is great, but the second half goes completely off the rails). Still, Warner was stingy with the marketing, and this is a decent start for the mainstream debut of the Donnie Darko director. The film's hopelessly confusing narrative will be problematic for both this film's long-term success as well as Kelly's next project.
Couples Retreat did something that is downright miraculous, dropping just 5% in its fifth weekend despite losing 169 screens. Frankly, I don't think I've ever seen that kind of weekend drop outside of inflated holiday fifth weekends (Titanic, The Sixth Sense) for as long as I've been following this stuff. Its $6.4 million weekend brings its total to $95 million. Also of note is the continuing decline of Saw VI, which has ended its third weekend with just $26 million. Ironically, one of the very best films in the series will still end its US run with less overall than the opening weekends of every prior Saw sequel. There is one more major story, and it's the astonishing white-hot debut of Precious. The festival-circuit darling and Tyler Perry/Oprah Winfrey acquisition has debuted with $1.872 million on just 18 screens. Yes, that's $104,025 per screen for three days. That's the twelfth-biggest per-screen average of all time, and it's by far the highest for any film playing on more than a handful of screens. Most of the similarly-huge per-screen debuts were limited-engagements of Disney animated films or Oscar-bait contenders in two or three high-priced theaters. For example, Disney's The Princess and the Frog opens on November 25th in two theaters, which are charging between $30 and $50 per ticket (at least the LA venue is). Obviously your chances of a huge per-screen debut are increased the fewer theaters you open in. But this was not a two-screens in New York and Los Angeles hype-getter. This was a full-on national debut in major markets. For the record, on the list of all-time top averages, it had the nineteenth widest-release. The critically-acclaimed drama expands this Friday and the film just became the front-runner for the Oscars, if only for the next week or so.
We'll end on that note of good news for now. Join us next weekend when Roland Emmerich rolls out the ultimate disaster movie, the 2.5 hour 2012 (review to be hopefully written by my wife, who worships the disaster genre). The only other wide-release is the 900-screen debut of Pirate Radio. Limited openings include The Fantastic Mr. Fox, Women In Trouble, and Uncertainty. For more box office, movie reviews, trailer reviews, news commentary, and original essays, go to Mendelson's Memos.