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Weekend Box Office -- Twilight: Eclipse and The Last Airbender Lead Strong July 4th Weekend

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To the surprise of no one with a pulse, The Twilight Saga: Eclipse dominated the July 4th holiday weekend, as the third installment of the popular teen-lit romantic soap opera series (IE - Moody with a Chance of Vampires) debuted with $64.8 million over the Fri-Sun portion and $83.6 million over the four-day holiday weekend. That's the third-biggest Independence Day opening weekend in history, behind Spider-Man 2 ($88 million) and Transformers ($70 million), and War of the Worlds ($64.9 million). Now, while one might argue that the number is a few hundred-thousand dollars less than the opening weekend of the first Twilight, and it's actually three million less than what New Moon scored on its first day, let's not forget that this Twilight picture was opening on a Wednesday, not Friday. So for its first six days, the film has amassed a scorching $176 million (the fifth-biggest on record, just $2 million behind the first five days of New Moon). The picture is the eighth-fastest sprinter to $150 million. If you recall, Spider-Man 2 opened over the same period in 2004, and it amassed $88 million on its Fri-Sun weekend, with $151 million in the first five days and $180 million in the first six days. What Spider-Man 2 and Transformers didn't have was a mammoth $68.5 million opening day, the second biggest on record behind the $72 million Friday gross of New Moon last November.

Obviously, if Summit wanted another crack at the three-day opening weekend record, they would have opened this picture on a Friday as well. The last film opened with $142 million, so the superior reviews and added ticket price for IMAX theaters certainly gave this third film a solid chance of taking down The Dark Knight ($158 million). What Summit did was rather interesting. Since we all know that this franchise has shorter legs than any ongoing franchise to date, they figured they could open over a long weekend, in the hopes that fans would see the film on Wednesday and then see it again over the holiday. Of course, the downside of that is that now Summit has to hope for three-peat viewings from the fans, lest this film has an even shorter shelf life than the second film (New Moon grossed $296 million, or 2.08x its opening weekend). At the end of the day, the Twilight series has a large niche of hardcore viewers, and the probability of adding a significant number of newbies three films in is not very high (possible positive sign of expansion - the film played 35% male, as opposed to the 20% male demo of New Moon). Barring a larger showing for the last picture in the series (Breaking Dawn will be broken into two films), this series is 'doomed' to gross around $290-310 million no matter what it does. But at last the video game is fantastic.

Of course, the Harry Potter franchise is the same situation, although I predict a major uptick for the finale, especially with that stunning trailer (like Twilight, the last book in the series is being released as two movies). You can play with the numbers all you want, but Twilight is a studio's ultimate fantasy: top-tier tentpole grosses for mid-budget prices (the third film cost around $65 million). But if Summit can't figure out how to open anything non-Twilight, they just become a future MGM, dying in the vine and occasionally saved by a Bond film every few years. But unless Summit can become a real studio and/or re-purpose the Twilight franchise after the current series is over (rebooting, a TV series version, etc), than they are dead in the water in about three years. Summit now has quite a bit of money to spend, and how they choose to spend it for their non-Twilight releases will be a matter of life and death.

The other major story of the weekend was the surprisingly robust debut of The Last Airbender. Proving once again that Paramount can open anything when they put their money into it (about $130 million worth of worldwide marketing), the $150 million, critically-reviled fantasy epic opened with a robust $40.3 million for the three-day weekend and $51.8 million over the four-day weekend, which gives the picture $69.3 million since opening on Thursday (it's the second-largest five-day haul for M. Night, behind the $76 million five-day gross for Signs). Blame the razzle-dazzle trailer, the large fanbase for the Nickelodeon cartoon that this is based on, the 3-D ticket prices, and/or the marquee power of M. Night Shyamalan, but something went very right for a picture where quite a bit went very wrong. The reviews obviously did not matter, nor did the controversy regarding the casting of white actors to play Asian characters. This is the thirteenth-biggest Independence Day opening on record, and the picture. Where it goes from here is an open question, as critics loathed the picture and I cannot imagine the hardcore fans of the television series being too fond of it (the film received a C from Cinema Score). Still, it has the kids-action audience all to itself for the next ten days until The Sorcerer's Apprentice opens on July 14th, although it will lose some of its 3-D screens on July 9th to Despicable Me.

Barring an epic collapse in the weeks ahead, the film is all-but guaranteed to gross at least $150 million, which would make it Shyamalan's highest-grossing picture in eight years. As I wrote a few days ago, I'm mixed on this. On one hand, M. Night Shyamalan made an indefensibly bad film, and the idea that this stunningly inept picture will likely end up becoming his third-highest grosser (behind Signs with $226 million and The Sixth Sense with $293 million) is not something that's going to encourage him to fix his own issues. Still, I remain a fan in light of his earlier great pictures, so I don't want to see him flop so badly that an artistic comeback is impossible. Like Tim Burton, Shyamalan is at a crossroads, and Alice in Wonderland's $1 billion gross is not going to encourage him to make more original movies. Nor will The Last Airbender making it to $150 million+ encourage Shyamalan to openly deal with his flaws as a writer and, of late, a director of actors. For now, let us just hope that Chris Nolan can deliver the artistic goods in a way that Shyamalan, Burton, Martin Scorsese, and Roman Polanski have not this year.

In third place lies Toy Story 3, which took a slight hit from the loss of its IMAX screens to Eclipse and the general competition. It dropped 49% in weekend three, grossing $30.2 million in three days and $43 million in four and ending its eighteenth day with $301.8 million. It actually had a slightly lower third weekend than Up, which grossed $30.7 million in its third weekend. On the other hand, it did cross the $300 million mark on Monday, which makes it the seventh-fastest movie to reach said milestone. The film will likely topple Alice in Wonderland ($334 million) and Finding Nemo ($339 million) in the next week or two, and it will surpass Iron Man 2 ($308 million and pretty much finished) in the next handful of days. Whether or not Toy Story 3 can join Alice in Wonderland in the billion-dollar worldwide club is an open question, but it already has $435 million (Finding Nemo, the previous Pixar champion, ended its global run with $847 million).

This article continues, with holdover news, a look at the indies, and the trend that is killing the word-of-mouth hit, at Mendelson's Memos.