Playing like an old-fashioned general-audiences blockbuster, Chris Nolan's Inception opened at the higher end of realistic expectations with $62.8 million over the weekend. That's a 2.89x weekend multiplier, which means that front-loading was moderate but not severe (the film actually rose a token amount from Friday to Saturday). Word of mouth is relatively positive, as the film earned a B+ from Cinema Score but an A from the under-25 crowd (73% of the audience was under 34 years old and 54% was male). In a world filled with remakes, reboots, and franchise-intended adaptations (many retrofitted for 3-D), Inception stood out as an original 2-D would-be tent-pole not based on any existing property. It was, to paraphrase Nolan's last film, attempting to be an original film in an unoriginal time. As such, it scored the fifth-largest opening weekend ever for a completely original live-action picture, behind Avatar ($77 million), The Day After Tomorrow ($68.7 million), Bruce Almighty ($67.9 million), and 2012 ($65.2 million). If you take away holiday weekend-infused openings, then Inception is the third-such opening behind Avatar and 2012.
A big kudos to Warner's marketing department, as they spent a solid year selling this one and preparing audiences to dive into what could have been a very questionable blockbuster. By teasing the visuals and action beats, and then gradually explaining the plot in broad strokes, they made the film feel comprehensible and only slightly challenging while withholding the basic narrative and any plot twists. They sold the visual spectacle and alleged epic nature of the film. Ironically, like Star Trek, the full trailer was more 'epic' and emotionally-compelling than the actual film, using sweeping and powerful music that was not from the film itself. Most importantly, they bet that audiences would care about seeing a movie from 'that guy who directed The Dark Knight'. More than the visuals or even lead actor Leonardo DiCaprio (this far exceeds his $41 million debut of Shutter Island), the real star of the marketing campaign was director Chris Nolan. It was a risky bet, as Nolan's non-Batman pictures have not gotten anywhere near blockbuster territory. But Warner hoped that Nolan was enough of a known entity, with audiences have seen the Batman pictures and theoretically sampled at least one of his other mind-benders (Memento, Insomnia, The Prestige) over the last decade. With this opening, Chris Nolan becomes a member of a very rare club: the star director. Nolan joins James Cameron, Steven Spielberg, Tim Burton, M. Night Shyamalan, Michael Bay, Quintin Tarantino, Roland Emmerich, and Tyler Perry as a director who is famous and/or respected enough by general audiences to be a valuable marketing tool.
Where Inception goes from here is anybody's guess. Unless it completely collapses or turns into a true audience sensation, $190-230 million seems a reasonable finishing point. Such a finish would put it on the high-end of such original properties. Of the 105 movies that have crossed $200 million, twenty-five are live-action originals and ten are original animated films. While the film cost around $160 million, Warner is also betting on strong global business. It pulled in about $15 million in a small number of markets this weekend, but it expands overseas over the next three weeks). While the film feels fashioned as the kind of picture that demands repeat viewing, the exposition-heavy movie is pretty easy to comprehend the first time around, leaving repeats only for the hardcore fans who want to catch small tidbits and/or deeper meanings that they missed. But the movie has a real IMAX advantage, as it will keep those 150+ IMAX screens (ideal for second viewings) for nearly two months before Resident Evil: Afterlife 3-D snatches them away on September 10th, 2010. Regardless of the final gross, this proves that audiences will flock to original properties if the studio behind them has faith enough to spend the time and money to market the picture. Kudos to Warner Bros. for breaking through the reboot/remake glut with something new.
The only other major opener was Disney's The Sorcerer's Apprentice, which shot itself in the foot by opening on a Wednesday. I've said this time and time again, unless fans are camped around the block for the first midnight showing, your film does not have enough of a must-see factor to open on Wednesday. If audiences can wait to see the film at their convenience, they will certainly wait to see the film over the traditional Fri-Sun weekend. As such, all a Wednesday opening does is kneecap the three-day opening weekend, giving you a soft five-day total instead of a solid three-day total with the same number. So while The Sorcerer's Apprentice opened with about $24.8 million over five days, it pulled in only $17.6 million of that over the weekend. Yes, money is money, but perception is everything. Instead of saving some face with a soft-but-manageable $24 million three-day take, the film looks like an absolute disaster with a $17 million three-day take and a footnote discussing the full five-day numbers.
As for the opening itself, it was a matter of Disney never really making the film look anything other than a relatively amusing curiosity. Fair enough, but relatively amusing curiosities should not cost $150 million. The film was sold on Nicholas Cage's extremely unreliable star power, and random special effects shots. Sure Alfred Molina is cool, Theresa Palmer is cute, and Cage is doing his 'low-key crazy' shtick, but that's not enough to sell when you've bet the farm. Nevermind Disney's confusion about how faithful it was to the Fantasia short for which it is named, that property is irrelevant to today's kids. While we may think of Pinocchio and Fantasia as classics, the classics for today's kids are Finding Nemo, Toy Story, and The Lion King. I'm sorry if I just made you all feel really old, but it's true (recall a Spring episode of Glee, where the U2 song 'One' was treated as classic rock). Anyway, Disney is hoping that overseas numbers save this one in the manner than they saved the earlier Bruckheimer production, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time ($90 million domestic, $236 million overseas).
This article continues, with news on holdovers, limited releases films, and next weekend's openers, at Mendelson's Memos.
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