Crisis? Box Office Hits New Low as ‘Gnomeo’ Beats ‘Hall Pass’

Already down more than 25%, market is led by a three-week-old holdover as Farrelly Bros. comedy and Nicolas Cage thriller both fall flat; box office is off more than 44% from Oscar weekend 2010

This is getting serious.

Already down more than 25 percent going into the usually-soft Oscar weekend, the domestic box office plunged to a new low this weekend as a three-week-old holdover,  "Gnomeo and Juliet," Disney's animated movie bout lawn gnomes, led the market with just $14.2 million, according to studio estimates.

The weekend's two new releases both underperformed badly.  Warner's Farrelly Bros. comedy "Hall Pass" undershot pre-release estimates in the high teens with just $13.4 million, and Summit's Nicolas Cage supernatural thriller "Drive Angry" was an unmitigated disaster, taking in just $5.1 million. (Projections put it over $10 million.)

Overall, the domestic box office is on pace to total around $103 million … which is just 9 percent less than the same weekend last year, but a whopping 44 percent off from the $185.9 million of Oscar weekend 2010, which was on the first weekend of March and led by the breakout performance of Disney's "Alice in Wonderland."

Certainly, there's no "Alice" or "Avatar" around this year.

"The big studios should be concerned," said one distribution executive. "And I think exhibition should be particularly concerned."

Dan Fellman, president of distribution for Warner Bros., offered a more optimistic opinion:

"We're going to be playing catch-up all the way until summer," he said. "But we're going to have a solid summer, then we'll be back on track."

Perhaps … but there's certainly a lot of catching up to do at this point.

Here's how the top 10 shaped up. Full report continues below chart:

Released into 2,950 theaters, the R-rated "Hall Pass" arrived with a budget in the high $30 million range and a tough box-office legacy, given that the Farrelly Bros. hadn't opened a movie to more than $14 million since "Shallow Hal" nearly 10 years ago.

The poorly reviewed "Hall Pass," which stars Owen Wilson and Jason Sudeikis as middle-aged dudes who get Faustian authorization from their wives to sleep around for one week, graded a B-minus from movie customer satisfaction grader Cinemascore.

According to Fellman, the high level of over-35 audience — fully 48 percent — probably didn't dig the crude Farrelly gags as much as a younger audience would.

The lack of younger audience was a "surprise," Fellman said, adding, "We expected to find a much stronger appeal from the 18-34 group."

So far in this downer calendar 2011, Warner is hardly alone in that consternation, with most films under-indexing on the younger demographic. "Drive Angry," for example, had an audience that was 57 percent over the age of 30 this weekend.

At some studios, there is concern that youth media-consumption trends, that already don't favor things like traditional linear television and music-CD-buying, might be threatening theater attendence, as well.

Fellman doesn't buy it.

"The young-male audience drives the motion-picture business, and it'll continue to do so," he said. "It's content-driven — give them something to see, and they'll come."

Along those lines, "Drive Angry" — a $75 million Milliennium/Nu Image-produced 3D film acquired by Summit for a relatively small sum to distribute theatrically in the U.S. and Canada — certainly did not qualify as "something to see."

In fact, audiences graded it with a very middling C-plus Cinemascore.

Given that more than 90 percent of the film's 2,290 domestic locations were charging premium 3D rates to see this movie, $5.1 million breaks down to a pretty sorry attendance figure.

So it goes.

While studios poured two more R-rated movies into mutiplexes this weekend, the dirth of kid-targeted fare gave Disney's G-rated "Gnomeo" another free shot.

Paramount's PG-rated CG-animated family film "Rango," which features the proven box-office powers of Johnny Depp, finally roles into theaters next weekend. But "Gnomeo" has already exploited the lack of family product in the market to the tune of $75.1 million.

Also not having such a bad weekend — of course — was Weinstein's "The King's Speech," which spiked 17 percent to $7.6 million as it prepares to win big at Sunday night's Academy Awards.