‘The Help’ Tops ‘Apollo 18,’ ‘Shark Night’ for Another Box Office Crown (Updated)

Slow Labor Day box office sees middling openings from two low-budget horror films, “Apollo 18” and “Shark Night 3D”

Sunday update:

So an adult drama about the Civil Rights movement is going to end up having the longest run atop the domestic box office for the 2011 summer tentpole season.

DreamWorks' "The Help" is on pace to gross $18 million over the four-day Labor Day holiday weekend, easily beating two new low-budget horror/sci-fi films, Weinstein/Dimension's "Apollo 18" and Relativity's "Shark Night 3D. Both scary movies are on pace for around $10 million this weekend.

Also debuting wide last Wednesday, Focus Features Helen Mirren war-criminal-hunter drama "The Debt" looks like it'll finish second for the weekend with about $12.4 million.

Also notable Sunday: Sony's "The Smurfs" crossed the $400 million mark worldwide.

Here's the top 10, based on four-day weekend estimates through Monday. TheWrap will have a full report with more precise estimates Monday morning.

"The Help" $18.0m
"The Debt" $12.4m
"Apollo 18" ($10.6m)*
"Shark Night 3D" ($10.5m)
"Rise of the Planet of the Apes" ($9.9m)*
"Colombiana" ($9.3m)
"Spy Kids 4" ($6.6m)*
"Our Idiot Brother" ($6.3m)
"Don't Be Afraid of the Dark" ($5.9m)
"The Smurfs" ($5.5m)

*Rival studio's estimate

Saturday update:

With summer tentpoles giving way to low-budget horror at the weekend box office, the results were unspectacular Friday, with both "Apollo 18" and "Shark Night 3D" debuting to the low-key total of $2.8 million.

Partly due to lack of competition, DreamWorks' "The Help" remained atop the box office, grossing about $3.5 million, according to studio estimates. It should top $17 million for the four-day Labor Day weekend period, its fourth weekend in release.

A found-footage sci-fi/horror film shot for only around $5 million, Weinstein/Dimension's "Apollo 18" had been projected for an opening of around $14 million – $15 million, but it's now pacing for just over $10 million for the weekend. 

Relativity's "Shark Night 3D," co-produced by Incentive Filmed Entertainment and Sierra Pictures on a budget in the mid-$20 million range, and distributed in the U.S. by Relativity under essentially service-deal terms, is also on pace to gross around $10 million for the four-day holiday weekend — pretty much its pre-release target.

Also in its first weekend, Focus Features' adult drama "The Debt" starring Helen Mirren grossed an estimated $2.5 million Friday, putting it on pace for around $11 million this weekend.

Overall, the domestic box office was down about 9 percent from the same weekend last year, according to one studio's estimates.

TheWrap will publish a full box-office report Monday, so cancel barbecue plans and tell the kids to do their own back-to-school shopping.

Thursday preview:

Nobody on the road, nobody on the beach; you can feel it at the box office, the summer's out of reach.

But with a record tentpole season officially winding down in typically quiet Labor Day Weekend fashion, is finishing flat or better in 2011 out of reach for the domestic motion-picture business?

That's a key question to ask, as two PG-13-rated sci-fi/horror movies — Weinstein Dimension's "Apollo 18" and Relativity's "Shark Night 3D" — hit the market. (Focus Features' adult drama "The Debt" premiered Thursday and is also entering its first weekend.)

Back to that big-picture box office question in a moment … first, we'll deal with the weekend at hand.

Also read: Go Back to School, Hollywood: Summer Movies Mangle the Facts

Pre-release projections for the found-footage-themed "Apollo 18" are in the mid-teens range, which puts the $5 million movie in position to end "The Help's" two-week perch atop the domestic box office.

Asked about Weinstein's entry into the potentially lucrative found-footage horror realm — a sub-genre plundered to great success in past years by the likes of "Blair Witch Project" and "Paranormal Activity" — Weinstein distribution president Erik Lomis parried: "We found the footage in a crater in the Ukraine," he told TheWrap, tongue in cheek.

In reality, Russians were involved, but they're hardly new to Hollywood, with producer Timur Bekmambetov best known for directing 2008's "Wanted."

Releasing "Apollo 18" in 3,328 theaters in the U.S. and Canada, Lomis says a gross in the $11 million – $14 million range will render the company very pleased with its minimal investment. 

The film revolves around a secret, ill-fated NASA moon mission, undone by aliens. Weinstein won't let critics peruse the rocket before launching it, but tracking ain't that bad.

Also read: Horror Movies Hit the Dead Zone This Summer

According to research firm NRG, the film is registering 86 percent "total awareness" among males 25 and older, with 42 percent conveying "definite interest" in seeing the movie and 11 percent calling it their "first choice" the next time they enter the multiplex.

Moviegoers looking for thrills and chills this weekend will also have the option of seeing Relativity's "Shark Night 3D," which will be released in about 2,800 theaters in the U.S. and Canada, 2,500 of them offering it in gloriously hyped 3D.

Produced by Sierra Affinity on a budget said to be in the mid-$20 million range, Relativity acquired U.S. rights on essentially service-deal terms, agreeing to pay for prints and advertising. (E1 is handling Canadian distribution.)

Relativity is expecting a full-weekend gross of around $8 million – $10 million.

Also new this weekend, Focus' "The Debt," an early contender to the awards race with a 76 percent Rotten Tomatoes score, opened Wednesday at 1,826 North American locations, grossing an estimated $970,532.

Also read: Review: 'The Debt,' a Taut Thriller Well Worth the Wait, Ushers in Fall Season

That performance didn't initially impress TheWrap's box-office analysis super-computer. A Focus representative later reminded our cyber-senient that the studio's "Constant Gardener" debuted to a similar scenario in 2005 — $929,829 at 1,387 locations on a pre-Labor Day Wednesday — before grossing $82.5 million worldwide and garnering a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for co-star Rachel Weisz.

Analysts predict that "The Debt" — which stars Helen Mirren as a woman dealing with her past as a Israeli Mossad Nazi hunter — will gross around $7 million – $8 million over the four-day holiday period.

Other box office highlights this weekend: Lionsgate will sneak-peak its mixed-martial-arts drama "The Warrior" in 550 locations, while its Latin market-targeted Pantelion label will release foreign film "Saving Private Perez" in 161 theaters

Other limited openings will include Samuel Goldwyn' R-rated comedy "A Good Old-Fashioned Orgy," starring Leslie Bibb, Will Forte and Jason Sudeikis.

Now, back to the multi-billion-dollar question: can the domestic box office, which teetered past 20 percent into the red in the early part of the year, finish 2011 in the black after a top-grossing summer?

Currently, the U.S. and Canadian market stands at around $7.2 billion, about 4.8 percent off a 2010 frame that ended up at $10.565 billion, according to BoxOfficeMojo.com.

Interestingly, the market is down only 1.2 percent from the same period in 2009, which ended up at an all-time high of $10.595 billion.

With sequels to such franchises as "Alvin and the Chipmunks," "Sherlock Holmes," "Paranormal Activity" and "Twilight" on the horizon, not to mention other big titles like DreamWorks Animation's "Puss in Boots" and DreamWorks' Steven Spielberg-directed "War Horse," it's certainly not inconceivable that the domestic market could rattle off another $3.4 billion or more by the time the year is completed.

If this year's box office is able to avoid some of the dead spots that plagued the latter half of 2010 — such as the downer December that included such duds as "The Tourist" and "How Do You Know?" — it should end up breaking the record.

We shall see, starting with a post-tentpole season home stretch that begins this weekend.