With strong legs driven by great word of mouth, and moribund competition from new releases, DreamWorks' period drama "The Help" easily won the domestic box office this weekend, grossing $20.5 million, according to studio estimates.
The total represented a 20 percent drop from the Emma Stone film's debut weekend and gives the movie a total domestic gross of $71.8 million after two weekends.
"To be knocking on the door of $72 million after two weekends certainly exceeds everyone's expectations," noted Disney's new theatrical distribution chief, Dave Hollis. (Disney is now the global distributor for the Steven Spielberg-led DreamWorks.)
Finishing a distant third behind Fox's "Rise of the Planet of the Apes" ($16.3 million), The Weinstein Company's fourth "Spy Kids" movie grossed an unspectacular $12 million playing at 3,295 locations.
The $27 million Robert Rodriguez film met its pre-release projections, but came nowhere close to the performance of the director's last "Spy Kids" installment in 2003, which opened to $33.4 million.
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In fact, on a weekend that was down 3 percent from the same period last year, and during which no new release found serious traction — or as one distribution executive put it, "Business sucked" — two remakes of '80s films floundered.
Lionsgate's "Conan the Barbarian" — a retake on the 1982 pectoral showcase that launched Arnold Schwarzenegger's career — grossed just $10 million, according to rival-studio data. The R-rated film, which was produced by Avi Lerner's Millennium/Nu Image for $70 million, had been forecast to bring in around $15 million.
And despite an intensive marketing push, DreamWorks' "Fright Night" — a remake of a 1985 tongue-in-cheek vampire comedy that became a cult hit — grossed just $8.3 million. Distributor Disney had hoped to gross around $12 million for the weekend.
One other film debuted widely this weekend: Focus Features opened romantic drama "One Day" in 1,719 locations and grossed $5.1 million for its trouble. That was the low side of pre-release projections. The Lone Scherfig-directed film stars Anne Hathaway and Jim Sturgess as a man and a woman who, you know … fall in love.
Among holdovers, besides "The Help's" continued strong performance, the best news came from Sony's "The Smurfs," which added $35 million to its foreign total and now has grossed $329 million globally after four weeks with a sequel on the way.
As far as the new films, there wasn't a lot of good news to be had, save for strong 3D performances.
Both "Fright Night" and "Conan the Barbarian," for example, received more than 60 percent of their opening revenue from 3D grosses — well above the 40 percent range that most 3D releases have been performing at over the summer. Meanwhile, "Spy Kids: All the Time in the World" received 44 percent of its gross from 3D, with only 40 percent of its distribution coming through the format.
"You look at the way family films in particular have been performing all summer, and exhibitors have been telling us they've been getting some push-back from the public," said Weinstein distribution president Erik Lomis, explaining his studio's decision to scale down the number of 3D screens for "Spy Kids 4."
"I don't think we left anything on the table," he added. "If people wanted to see it in 3D, they could."
For the release, Weinstein handed out special scented cards that were to be smelled by the largely under-12 audience at certain perscribed increments of the film — Weinstein marketed it as "4D Aromascope," while adding a prominent note to parent's that "It's free!"
Substituting the pectoral region of the buffed-out Jason Momoa for the erstwhile Governator, "Conan" could have, perhaps, used a gimmick for two.
As it stands, Lionsgate — which merely bought distribution rights in the U.S., Canada and the UK, won't get singed too badly by "Conan's" soft theatrical performance.
Also read: 'Spy Kids 4D' Stinks in More Ways than One
However, it is disappointing given that the studio has had big success with August releases the past two year. The tiny-budgeted "Last Exorcism" broke out to a huge $20.4 million over-performance in 2009, and "The Expendables" spawned a $274.5 million worldwide gross last year and a sequel.
Of course, Lionsgate was hardly alone in watching an '80s remake underperform this weekend.
Produced for around $30 million, and starring Colin Farrell in the hipster vampire role, "Fright Night" was the weekend's only new release to impress critics. Its Rotten Tomatoes score is 74 percent. Exit data from moviegoers gave the film a respectable B-plus score from Cinemascore, meanwhile.
But as has been the case across genres and studios for the last year, the younger audience was just hard to find, with over 60 percent of moviegoers coming in age 26 and older.
"Getting younger audience members to show up is an increasingly difficult challenge," said Disney's Hollis.
Of course, Disney and DreamWorks can easily be distracted from that movie's angst by the breakaway success of "The Help," which commanded a rare A-plus Cinemascore grade a week ago and is already sparking awards talk.
"I think we hear all of that talk, and it's the kind of thing you dream for," Hollis noted. "But at this point, it's too early to get too excited about."