Maybe it really is a case of 'it's the movie, stupid'. After Avatar opened to $77 million and ended up the most successful movie ever by a huge margin, and after Alice in Wonderland opened with $116 million and ended up as one of the highest-grossing non-summer releases of all-time, the studios at large seemed to think that the answer was '3D'. In the last months, every studio has rushed to proclaim that pretty much all of their upcoming tent-poles will be released in 3D prints alongside the traditional 2D ones. Some will be shot with 3D in mind (the stunning-looking Tron Legacy), while others will be converted after the fact (next weekend's Clash of the Titans). Surely the reason that these films broke out was purely because they were being offered in 3D, not because of the innate appeal of the films themselves (a big-budget Tim Burton adaption of Alice in Wonderland with Johnny Depp and Anne Hathaway - who would want to see that?), or the top-flight marketing jobs performed by (respectively) 20th Century Fox and Walt Disney. No, it had to have been merely the 3D. Right? Well, maybe not so much...
This weekend's number one film was Dreamworks Animation's How to Train Your Dragon, which opened in 2D, 3D, and IMAX 3D theaters. Yet despite rave reviews and would-be magic bullet of 3D, the picture pulled in just $43.7 million this weekend. That's no small potatoes, but it's $16 million below the opening weekend of Dreamworks' Aliens Vs. Monsters. Heck, this opening is lower than the openings achieved by Dreamworks 'classics' such as A Shark Tale and the first Madagascar ($47 million apiece). Adjusted for inflation and taking into account the higher 3D-ticket prices, this opening is more in line with Bee Movie and Over the Hedge ($37 million apiece). If I seem bitter, it's because the reviews were dead-on, How to Train Your Dragon is the best film of the year thus far and a template on how to make good animated films (rich storytelling, beautiful visuals, real acting, no topical pop-culture references, etc) and a textbook case on how to use 3D to its fullest potential. I paid $16.50 for my 3D IMAX ticket and didn't feel the least bit ripped-off. So while it may be a good thing that studios realize that 3D will not make moviegoers rush to a film that they otherwise wouldn't have much interest in, the question now becomes why moviegoers didn't have much interest. As is often the case, marketing is to blame. The film stressed boy-friendly adventure, which is always a harder sell in family-friendly animation than cross-gender comedy. Monsters Vs. Aliens may have been a lousy movie, but it was advertised as harmless comedic amusement that wouldn't terrify your wee ones and wouldn't be too painful for you (those dreaded pop-culture references to play well to a general audience demo in trailers). By contrast, there was a real question about whether How to Train Your Dragon was too scary for kids under five or six, or whether it would have any real female appeal. Ironically, the token love interest is actually a fully-fleshed out character and she's not the only female in the picture It may not be fair, but the old-fashioned quality of the latest Dreamworks entry may have been a disadvantage when came time to sell the picture, as there weren't very many trailer-friendly moments to pick from without giving away major plot twists. Having said that, spring break will be in full effect for the next couple weeks, so one can only hope that the word of mouth and weekdays that act like weekends for countless vacationing families can carry this $165 million picture across at least the $150 million mark. Much has been written over the last week regarding the rising ticket prices of both 3D and traditional theaters, and I sympathize with those who wonder if the studios are going to overestimate the willingness of cash-strapped moviegoers to shell out extra money for the 3D gimmick. Let me just say, as a critic and a moviegoer, this film is worth seeing in whatever format you or your family can afford. If you can splurge for 3D or IMAX 3D, do it. But this is a terrific and exciting adventure picture that will lose only a token of its power in a cheap 2D matinee. Having films like this or Over the Hedge under-perform while Monsters Vs. Aliens and A Shark Tale explode can only teach Dreamworks the wrong lessons. You wouldn't want Dreamworks to make nothing but Shrek sequels or lowest-common denominator comedies anymore than you'd want Pixar to make nothing but sequels to Cars.
Third place went to the other wide-release debut, the accurately-titled Hot Tub Time Machine. The MGM comedy was inexplicably expected to gross around $20 million, so the perfectly reasonable $14 million debut is seen in some circles as a failure. Not so, as the picture was always going to play to a niche audience. The marketing campaign was downright goofy and the film's trailers all-but put a sign on the door exclaiming 'no slimy girls allowed!'. Like Snakes on a Plane, the goofy title led prognosticators to presume that it could break out beyond its specific demographic. MGM made the same mistake that New Line did with Snakes on a Plane, selling a movie as 'so outrageous, you have to see it!'. Problem is, most people don't pay first-run prices to see a movie that they are being told is 'so bad it's good!'. And, just like the Samuel L. Jackson thriller, the studio was unable to take advantage of the relatively positive notices that the picture received from critics. Still, the picture only cost $36 million, and the (theoretically unrated) DVD will likely sell like hotcakes when the time comes. Like usual, MGM now sits on the precipice of doom, waiting for the next James Bond picture to save its butt once again.
Second place went to last weekend's top picture. Disney was able to keep 75% of its 3D screens for Alice in Wonderland, which allowed the picture to drop just 48% to gross $17.7 million over the weekend and end day twenty-four with a mammoth $293.5 million. The Tim Burton paycheck gig is now days away to becoming the eighth film not released in the summer months to cross $300 million. That Disney was able to keep a large majority of its 3D screens is a sign of the Mouse House clout, and it must add extra insult that it was able to damage the opening weekend of a Dreamworks animation debut. We'll see how much it gives up next weekend when Clash of the Titans debuts in converted-at-the-last-minute 3D. Anyway, this film has surpassed The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Up, and The Sixth Sense to become Disney's sixth highest-grossing film of all-time. By next weekend, it may well have leapfrogged Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl ($305 million), Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End ($309 million), and possibly The Lion King ($312 million) to become Disney's number three domestic grosser. And if this weekend's animated debut taught us anything, Alice's massive success wasn't really about the 3D.
Among limited release openings, the news was pretty grim all around. The heavily touted Atom Egoyan erotic thriller Chloe grossed only $900,688 on 350 theaters for a lousy $2,573 per-screen average. Let's be honest, the appeal of watching Amanda Seyfried make out with Juliane Moore is strongest amongst viewers who would rather wait until DVD release so they can enjoy such things in the comfort of their home. The well-reviewed adult horror picture, The Eclipse pulled in $2,201 per screen in six theaters. Ca$h grossed just $16,649 on 27 screens, Lbs grossed $11,690 on one screen, and Bluebeard made $8,370 on its single-screen debut. The documentary Waking Sleeping Beauty, chronicling the rebirth of Disney animation from the mid-80s to the mid-90s, opened in five screens and grossed just $6,623 per screen. The film was given next-to-no publicity and I can only wonder if it covers much of the same material dealt with on the "Treasures Untold" documentary on the 2006 DVD release of The Little Mermaid. The fact that the DVD will allegedly contain 85-minutes of added material does not help matters, as why should one venture to a theater to see a documentary when they can wait for the DVD and basically get two documentaries for the price of one? No End In Sight had the same issue, with the 105-minute feature supplemented by 105-minutes of additional material.
Among holdovers, there is little unexpected to report. The Bounty Hunter dropped 42% after a 'disappointing' $20 million opening weekend. The $40 million Jennifer Aniston/Gerard Butler comedy has now grossed $38.4 million. Diary of a Wimpy Kid proved a one-weekend wonder, as it plummeted 54% as a result of direct demo competition. Still, the $15 million picture has already amassed $35.8 million. Repo Men dropped 50% for $11.3 million domestic total, which is impressive considering how lousy it is. She's Out of My League (-39% this weekend) is now at $25.5 million, The Green Zone (-44%) is at $30.4 million, and Shutter Island (-33%) is now at $120.6 million. Pity poor Avatar, which finally dropped out of the top-ten in its fifteenth weekend with a whopping 49% plunge. On the plus side, it crossed the $740 million mark, so there's that small comfort.
That's all for this weekend. Join us next weekend when 3D again gets put to the test with the Warner Bros 3D-done-on-the-cheap spectacular, Clash of the Titans. Also opening is Tyler Perry's Why Did I Get Married Too and the Miley Cyrus melodrama, The Last Song (that one actually opens on Wednesday). It's based on a Nicolas Sparks novel, so don't expect a happy ending. Considering how well every demographic is being served, expect a big healthy Easter weekend at the box office.