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Weekend Box Office: Underdog Horror Film Crushes Sixth Chapter of Formerly Underdog Horror Film Series

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In a somewhat shocking turn of events that played out like a season finale of a television series, the long roll-out of Paranormal Activity peaked with a wide-release debut that handily crushed the opening weekend of the long-running Saw franchise. This may not be the end of the fall box office season (next weekend has the wild card Michael Jackson documentary This Is It), but it is surely its climax. Do not weep for Jigsaw and gang, for they will be back. Even at a whopping 50% opening weekend loss, the fifth sequel will be profitable in short order (it only cost about $12 million). Bitter irony that this sixth chapter was actually a marked improvement over the last two sequels, but fan backlash over the exceptionally lousy Saw IV and Saw V combined with direct competition to provide a brutal, if not mortal, wound. Like most stories of this nature, the facts are more complicated than the headline.

In what may be some of the best marketing of the decade, Paramount took an $11,000 home movie that they originally intended to shelve and remake with bigger stars and production values and has turned it into the must-see horror film of the year. After several weekends of expansion and increased box office figures, Paranormal Activity is now the number one movie in America. Expanding from 760 screens to 1,945 screens, the low-budget chiller scored $21.1 million, for a new domestic total of $61.5 million. Assuming the film doesn't completely collapse after Halloween (a plausible possibility), Paramount has a shot at getting this thing to $100 million. How did this happen? There are two specific reasons, in my opinion. First of all, the brilliant whisper campaign, including the 'write to Paramount now to get it to come to your town' gimmick, made people feel like they were discovering the film on their own and thus had a personal ownership in its success. Audiences are always fonder of films that they feel they discovered of their own accord, such as My Big Fat Greek Wedding or The Sixth Sense, and this makes the sharing of word of mouth into a personal crusade. Second of all, the film worked on two distinct levels. If you liked the film and found it scary, then you'd certainly rave about it accordingly. However, even if you didn't like it, viewing the film in a packed theater is genuinely entertaining as you get to watch everyone else in the theater freak out on cue.

Even as someone who didn't like the movie all that much, I know for a fact that the younger, less busy me of years past would have loved to drag some of my more easily frightened friends along in order to watch them shriek and squirm. And what better date movie that something absolutely guaranteed to cause major bruised-forearm action without grossing anyone out? Regardless of my feelings about the film, it is genuinely working on general audiences as an out-and-out party movie, something to be viewed in as a communal experience in a giant theater. I've said this before, but there is irony in that this was made possible partially by the recent high-profile date changes of Shutter Island, Up In The Air, and The Lovely Bones, which left Paramount with nothing better to do than hype their would-be cult find for most of the fall season. Further ironic is that this 'un-Hollywood' horror flick and its impact with audiences was greatly enhanced by a re-shot ending, suggested by Steven Spielberg himself, that was in fact far more traditional and 'mainstream' than the original finale. Still, whatever my misgivings about the current rags-to-riches narrative regarding the film's success, it IS a massive success and everyone involved (including the actual filmmakers, who accomplished quite a bit for so little money and resources) should be congratulated.

But, in another irony, the triumph of Paranormal Activity is seemingly less worthy of celebration than the sound defeat of the long-running Saw franchise. Whatever your thoughts on the series (for the last time, it's not torture porn), let us remember that it too began as a low-budget horror film that was doomed to be sent direct-to-DVD before a successful series of midnight screenings (sound familiar?). So while I take pleasure in the surprising success of Paranormal Activity, I refuse to take any joy in the potential crumbling of the Saw series. First, let's accept the blunt truth: faced with its first horror film competition since the series debuted in third-place against the second weekend of The Grudge and the opening weekend of Ray, the Saw series has taken a massive opening-weekend nose dive. The series debuted with $18 million, and the sequel surprised a year later by crushing The Legend of Zorro and debuting at number 01 with $31 million. For the next three years, no one was surprised with parts III, IV, and V all opened above $30 million. But this year, the sixth Jigsaw adventure opened with just $14.1 million. Since this series usually has terrible weekend-to-total multipliers, expect Saw VI to struggle to even reach $40 million before going to DVD around January of next year.

What happened? Well, first of all, let's ignore those who are exclaiming that America just suddenly up and got tired of the series. It's actually slightly more complicated. From the second film on, the series has owned the pre-Halloween release date. No studio has dared place another horror film in the way of the Saw freight train, and had things gone according to plan, Saw VI would have again been the only horror film around for those wanting a pre-Halloween scary movie. The obvious fly-in-the-ointment was the inexplicable rise of Paranormal Activity, whose limited release numbers far exceeded even the most optimistic projections. Had Paranormal Activity expanded with a little less vigor, Paramount might very well have waited until October 30th to roll out the national expansion. But the iron was blindingly hot as of two weekends ago, so the studio had to take a chance and get the movie into national release while the press was still foaming at the mouth. On top of that, the Saw franchise had been floundering with its retroactive continuity that struggled to maintain itself in the wake of Saw III, which kinda-sorta killed off the lead villain in its climax. With probable backlash from the direct-to-DVD-looking Saw V, horror fans decided to try out something different this weekend and the series suffered for it.

But make no mistake, had Paranormal Activity not exploded in those early limited-release weekends, we'd likely be mentioning it in brief while discussing another $25-30 million Saw opening. The lesson that Lionsgate must learn is pretty simple: the series has remained uncommonly and consistently strong partially because of the lack of horror competition. Now that the myth of invincibility has been shattered, studios will be flooding the market with horror films come next October. So the best thing that Lionsgate can do is not panic, but remember that as long as the films keep their budget at below $15 million, then they will still be profitable for years to come. And since the sixth film is truly better than the previous two sequels, then expect a slightly better weekend multiplier than the series standard (Saw V and Saw IV had 1.8x and 2.0 multipliers). Plus, the smaller than normal box office take will lead to a larger than normal rental business (since any fans who skipped out in theaters are that much more likely to rent it in January). Point being, Saw VII in 3D is still heading our way next October, but now the series is in the inexplicable position of being the underdog once more.

The other openers all flopped. Amelia, the critically reviled Amelia Earhart biopic, debuted with just $3.9 million on 820 screens. The near-$4,761 per screen average isn't bad, but it's all downhill from here. I take no joy in this failure either as the film seemed to be an old-fashioned biopic without any particular need to juice up history. Besides, Hillary Swank deserves kudos for having maintained a solid career without ever feeling the need to play the token female support for any given A-list stars. Be they triumphs like Million Dollar Baby, B-movie fun like The Core, or misfires like The Reaping, Hillary Swank is almost always front and center in her films when so many other actresses have been forced to stand behind a man. Astro Boy, based on a classic 1950s Japanese comic book, opened with just $6.7 million, proving once again that Summit is going to be in serious trouble once the Twilight franchise ends. There have been rumblings about them trying to get purchased by one studio or another, and I'd suggest they try to get sold sometime soon after the opening weekend of New Moon. Even when their movies are good (I rather liked the smarter than expected P2), Summit just doesn't have the marketing muscle to sell unknown quantities to moviegoers. Cirque du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant tanked with $6.3 million. Chalk it up to a marketing campaign that tried too hard to resemble Twilight (it's not alone), and a kid-friendly story that should have gone with a PG instead of a PG-13. Either way, this one had no business costing $40 million.

The holdovers performed as expected, with one minor exception. Where the Wild Things Are dropped a steep 57%, as general movie goers were divided over the emotionally draining tone poem. At $53.5 million, the $85-100 million production will likely crawl to $80 million at the very least. Foreign business will probably be a boon to the somewhat artsy production, and those that love this film absolutely worship it and they'll be sure to buy the DVD or Blu Ray and show it to friends and family for years to come. This would-be classic will play forever and Warner Bros will eventually see a profit on their courageous investment. Law-Abiding Citizen dropped just 41% for a ten-day total of $40 million. The $50 million production should make it to at least $60 million in domestic grosses alone. Once again, if you make star-driven, B-movie thrillers for adults (and budget them accordingly), adult moviegoers will show up. The Stepfather remake inexplicably dropped just 46%, which is downright stunning considering the competition. Its ten-day total is $20 million, now equaling its production budget.

That's all for this weekend. Next weekend is a shockingly light weekend, with just This Is It opening wide. For a look at what happened at the box office last year, go here (to watch me blow my box office guesstimates like never before or since, go here first). For a look at the best in direct-to-DVD horror, go here. Otherwise, for more box office, movie reviews, trailer reviews, news commentary, and original essays, go to Mendelson's Memos.

Scott Mendelson