11/04/2012 03:26 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Weekend Box Office: Wreck-It Ralph Sets a Disney Animation Record While Flight Soars to $25 Million on Just 1,844 Screens

The holiday season started off with a bang this weekend, with three major openers, all of which over-performed or opened within reasonable expectations.  If Wreck-It Ralph's (review) estimate holds, it will have the biggest three-day debut for a non-Pixar Disney cartoon ever.  Believe it or not, a regular Disney toon has never opened at or above $50 million over a Fri-Sun period.  To be fair, The Lion King's $42 million debut back in June 1994 would equal around $75 million today and Tangled earned $48 million on the Fri-Sun portion of a $67 million five-day Thanksgiving opening.  Still, with $49.1 million, Wreck-It Ralph managed to top every non-Pixar animated feature that has opened in this holiday kick-off spot save Madagascar 2's $63 million opening in 2008.  It opened higher than Shark Tale in 2004 ($47 million), Chicken Little in 2005 ($40 million), Flushed Away in 2006 ($18 million), Bee Movie in 2007 ($38 million), A Christmas Carol in 2009 ($30 million), Megamind in 2010 ($45 million), and Puss In Boots in 2011 ($34 million over Halloween weekend and another $33 million over this weekend last year). Inflation and 3D-bumps aside, this is a strong debut for a rather crowd-pleasing cartoon that should play well for the rest of the month even with heavy competition in three weeks from Dreamworks' Rise of the Guardians.  Like pretty much every major Disney cartoon since Bolt four years ago, this film is being touted as Disney's return to glory, but merely doing the numbers means that the Mouse House has a pretty big hit on their hands.

Giving it Chicken Little's 3.3x multiplier gives Wreck-It Ralph a terrific $162 million domestic total.  Giving it The Incredibles's 3.77x multiplier means a $185 million gross while a leggier run along the lines of Monsters Inc.'s 4.11x means $201 million.  All of this means that $200 million domestic, which among non-Pixar Disney toons only The Lion King, Aladdin, and Tangled have accomplished, is not a guarantee, although the 4.3x multiplier of Puss In Boots (which dropped about $1 million between weekends, which won't happen here) gives the film $211 million.  What's noteworthy is how low Disney seems on the animation totem pole when it comes to domestic box office.  If Wreck-It Ralph ends up with $160 million, that puts it behind the likes of Brave ($235 million), Madagascar 3 ($216 million), and The Lorax ($214 million) and neck-and-neck with Ice Age: Continental Drift ($160 million).  To be fair, three of those were sequels or adaptations of beloved childrens' stories while Wreck-It Ralph was an original designed arguably to appeal more to parents than kids (the film is kid-friendly, but full of video game references that play to the Nintendo generation).  Of course the Disney secret remains Disney merchandising, which the likes of Dreamworks and Blue Sky have yet to match at this juncture.  Brave, Tangled, and even the allegedly disappointing Princess and the Frog ($104 million domestic) sold hundreds-of-millions worth of princess merchandise based on their lead characters and it will be interesting to see if Disney can leverage a similar niche for its female supporting character.  Oh, and it earned $12 million in six markets overseas, giving it a $61 million worldwide debut.

Coming in next was Paramount's Flight (review), which inexplicably opened on just 1,800 screens but still had a comparitvely massive opening.  With a higher per-screen average ($13,270) than  Wreck-It Ralph, Robert Zemeckis's return to live-action filmmaking became Denzel Washington's 13th $20 million debut.  The film's $25 million opening is Washington's fifth-biggest debut ever (four of those 13 debuts are at exactly $20 million while three of them are at $22 million), even as the film had 2/3 the normal theaters for this kind of release. The film cost just $30 million, so it's going to be quite profitable, but I still question the release strategy.  Even with apparently strong word of mouth (an A- from Cinemascore) and a superb 3.1x weekend multiplier, the legs are still somewhat in question.  In short, A) it's not what the trailers are selling, B) it's not a very good movie, and C) the older moviegoers are going to race to Skyfall (review) next weekend anyway.

Still, it's a win for old-school, R-rated, major-studio character dramas no matter how it does from here out.  The film played 88% over 25 years old and 51% male.  My issues with the film aside, it's probable that it becomes the second-choice for older filmmakers over the next month, which means it may still have a shot at $100 million. Paramount sold the film they wanted and not the film they had, teasing the intense plane crash sequence and advertising a mystery element that the film doesn't remotely contain.  Whether or not they get 'punished' for this misdirection is immaterial when the budget is this low.  Worst case scenario the film collapses and crawls to $60 million while it does another $60 million overseas, giving Paramount a solid win.  Denzel Washington again proves himself as the last real 'open it by yourself' movie star of the my generation (essay).

Speaking of Russell Crowe, he actually co-stars in the third big opener, Universal's The Man With the Iron Fists.  Directed and written by and starring musician RZA, this Eli Roth-produced and co-written homage to grindhouse martial arts films opened with $8.2 million.  The good news is that the film cost just $15 million, yet another case of reasonable budgeting reaping respectable rewards.  There's not much more to say on this.  It's a film tailored to a very specific audience, and Russell Crowe clearly was not attempting to reaffirm any box office clout by signing on.  He'll get that chance with the all-star Les Miserables.  The film played 64% male and 53% under 30 years old.  I'd argue that three years ago RZA would have gotten someone to pony up $60-$90 million and then wondered why only hard-core genre fans showed up, but the low budget is yet another symptom of a studio system that seems to come to its senses regarding financial sanity.

For holdover news, including second weekend box office for Skyfall in the UK, go to Mendelson's Memos.