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Weekend Box Office: Adult Films Trash Cheap Exploitation Fare and Dominate Labor Day Weekend, as The Help and The Debt Defeat Shark Night and Apollo 18

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Summer must be over, as grownups are seemingly returning to the marketplace.  In what was always going to be a light moviegoing holiday weekend, the low-key adult thriller (on 1,826 screens) defeated the more heavily advertised and wider-playing genre entries.  First of all, The Help once again topped the box office for the third weekend in a row ($19 million for its four-day holiday weekend, with a $14.6 million Fri-Sun total, actually rising 0.5% from last weekend).  I'm not sure what the record is for the most consecutive weekends at number one for a movie that did not debut in first place, but the crowd-pleasing period drama has to be high on the would-be list.  With $123 million in a month, the film now sits as the eighth-highest grossing drama of all-time released in the summer, a list that becomes even shorter when you discount war-themed action pictures (Saving Private Ryan, Pearl Harbor, Gladiator).  It is still outpacing Bridesmaids by a significant margin ($106 million after four weekends) and could very well flirt with $180 million if it can hold onto screens and fend off adult-skewing pictures (Warrior, Contagion, Moneyball) in the next month.

The somewhat surprising story of the weekend was the excellent performance of Focus Features' The Debt.  The relatively well-reviewed film stars Helen Mirren, Sam Worthington, Jessica Chastain, Ciarán Hinds, Marton Csokas, and Tom Wilkinson in a time-jumping thriller (a remake of an Israeli film from 2007) about the hunt for a Nazi war criminal.  The film opened with $9.9 million over Fri-Sun and about $12.5 million for the four-day holiday, and a $14.4 million total since opening on Wednesday.  To be honest, I genuinely disliked the picture, finding it poorly paced and relatively unengaging after the first half.  Plus, minor note, it was a bit confusing.  Sam Worthington looked more like a young Tom Wilkinson than a young Ciarán Hinds, and Marton Csokas looked EXACTLY like a young Ciarán Hinds, yet he played the young Tom Wilkinson, leaving me waiting for a climactic twist that never came.  Having said that, this is just the kind of movie I like to see the studios releasing: adult-skewing, adult-starring, and R-rated purely because it is a film for adults with adult sensibilities (why that is a rare thing since 2001 - HERE).  So this opening, which is just above the $10.9 million four-day debut of The Constant Gardner (review) back in Labor Day 2005, is among the top-ten Labor Day debuts of all-time and a fine start for a film that could have easily been lost in the shuffle.

Coming in at third and fourth place were the critically-slammed Apollo 18 and Shark Night 3D.  Neither films were screened for critics before release and neither apparently were cases of 'Why didn't they screen this for critics?'.  Relativity was trying to emulate the relative success of Piranha 3D on this weekend last year, and they more or less succeeded, for whatever that's worth.  The 3D flying fish horror comedy debuted with about $10 million last year, and both Apollo 18 and Shark Night debuted with just over $8 million.  Apollo 18 ($8.7 million in three days and $10.4 million in four) has been bounced around the schedule for the last year, and the Weinstein Company just recently moved it to this weekend.  Frankly, I suspect the Weinstein Company did it purely to hurt Shark Night 3D, as the latter picture, which grossed $8.3 million over three days and $10.3 million over four, may very-well have debuted at number one without the direct demo competition (both were cheap, exploitation fare-style PG-13 horror films).  Apollo 18 cost just $5 million to produce, so it will be profitable even if it drops 95% next weekend.  Shark Night 3D cost $28 million so it will have a harder, longer road to travel before profitability.  Still, that PG-13 will ensure that it can run relatively unedited on USA or FX from now until cable becomes extinct.

There wasn't much holdover news.  The weekend drops were generally quite small, owing both to the holiday weekend and the fact that moviegoers who were 'inconvenienced' by Hurricane Irene did make a point to check out whatever they wanted to see last weekend.  Captain America topped $170 million, so it still has an outside chance of catching up to Thor ($181 million).  Rise of the Planet of the Apes now sits at $162 million after a weekend drop of just 10%, meaning it is likely to out-gross all of the various comic book superhero films that were supposed to dominate the summer. Colombiana dropped just 28% in weekend two, so the $40 million acquisition now sits at $23 million stateside.  Our Idiot Brother (-26% in weekend two) now has $17.2 million, while Don't Be Afraid of the Dark (-42%, the biggest drop in the top ten) has amassed just $17.8 million.  Spy Kids: All the Time in the World has shown okay legs, grossing $31 million in eighteen days off a $12 million opening.  The film has now surpassed its $27 million budget and should eventually find its way to profitability.  In  unexpected relaunches, Disney unloaded Cars 2 into 2,043 theaters and scored an additional $1.8 million (up about 372% from last weekend).  It won't be enough to get the film to $200 million, but the effort is appreciated (it's at $189 million now).  And Sony expanded Bad Teacher to 986 screens in an effort to get the film to $100 million.  Close, but the film still sits at $98.8 million for the moment.

And that's it for this weekend.  Updates will be done as the four-day numbers come in accordingly.  Tune in next weekend for the first real weekend of the Fall season, as Warrior (review) squares off against Contagion (press screening Wednesday, may attend depending on securing a babysitter).  Since the Steven Soderbergh pandemic drama is on 3,100 screens versus the 1,700 screens for Warrior, we can guess who will win next weekend (although two great movies in one weekend means we, the moviegoers, win).  For a slowly evolving look back at Summer 2011, read Part I and Part II (Part III sometime this week).