Riding solid reviews and great word-of-mouth among moviegoers, DreamWorks' film adaptation of best-seller "The Help" enjoyed a strong first weekend at the domestic box office, grossing $25.5 million, according to studio estimates.
The Disney-distributed film, produced by DreamWorks and Participant Media for around $25 million, met its pre-release expectations. And with its Wednesday and Thursday midweek tallies, it has grossed an estimated $35.4 million through Sunday.
Noting the film's exceptionally strong Heartland play — its top five-grossing theaters were in Memphis, Tenn., Jackson, Miss., Chicago, Atlanta and Dallas — Disney executive VP of distribution Dave Hollis said, "I'm not sure we'll ever have another conversation when any of those [locations] are in the top five."
However, "The Help's" three-day performance wasn't good enough to win the weekend. The box office crown once again belonged to Fox's "Rise of the Planet of the Apes," which dropped a solid 52 percent in its second weekend to $27.5 million. The origins-themed "Apes" prequel has now totalled nearly $105 million domestically to date.
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Among other films debuting widely this weekend, Warner/New Line's "Final Destination 5" opened to $18.4 million, missing pre-release forecasts outside the studio that were in the $25 million range.
For their part, however, Warner executives say the debut performance of the $42 million 3D film is in line with their $18 million – $22 million projections.
"And when you look at what this film cost to make, it will end up making money," noted Warner executive VP of distribution Jeff Goldstein.
Notably, with Steven Quale, visual effects supervisor for James Cameron on "Avatar," directing the fifth Final Destination movie, 75 percent of opening box office revenue came from 3D.
Sony's Ruben Fleisher-directed comedy "30 Minutes or Less," meanwhile, opened to $13 million, and narrowly missed projections outside Sony in the mid to high teens. The latest R-rated "action comedy" from the directer of "Zombieland" stars Jessie Eisenberg, Aziz Ansari and Danny McBride, and was shot on location in Grand Rapids, Mich. and financed by Media Rights Capital on a budget of only around $20 million. The movie garnered an overall B grade from Cinemascore.
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And Fox's "Glee: 3D Concert Movie" started out to $5.7 million. It had been picked to open in the $10 million – $12 million range.
Playing exclusively in 3D at 2,040 theaters, Fox also won't get hurt based on a $9 million production spend — and the A Cinemascore grade won't leave anybody trashing the fall debut of the "Glee" TV series on Fox.
But Fox and its competitors have got to be wondering at this point: when seeking to create a virally promoted 3D concert movie phenomenon, why did "Glee" fail to catch on, while Justin Bieber and Hanna Montana succeeded so spectacularly?
The big story this weekend, however, was the Emma Stone-led "Help," an adaptation of Kathryn Stockett's best-selling novel profiling the relationship between Southern white women and their black domestic employees in the Civil Rights Era.
The film — adapted and directed by Stockett's friend, Tate Taylor — received a rare A-plus grade from movie word-of-mouth tracker Cinemascore. About 74 percent of the audience was female, and only 40 percent of moviegoers were under the age of 35.
Impressively, about 95 percent of women over 35 listed that they would "definitely recommend" the film in surveys.
"Final Destination 5," meanwhile, arrived in 3,155 U.S. and Canadian theaters — 2,515 showing the film in 3D — with some of the best reviews of the decade-old series (57 percent on Rotten Tomatoes isn't bad for part five of a horror franchise). The film even got a B-plus Cinemascore.
Ironically, the weekend box office performance had parallels to the series' plot lines, where the kid survives a tragic train accident, only to succumb a few years later while tying his shoes.
Consider that 2009's more narratively challenged "The Final Destination" debuted to a 29 percent Rotten Tomatotes tally and a challenged C Cinemascore grade, but managed to cheat box office death with a big $186.2 million worldwide performance.
The $18.4 million "Final Destination 5" opening was the series' lowest since 2003's "Final Destination 2," which started out to $16 million without 3D up-charges.
With the overall domestic box office up around 4 percent over the same weekend last year, Sony's "Smurfs" passed the century mark in the U.S. and Canada ($101.5 million) with a $13.5 million weekend performance.
The CGI kiddie movie, which has already spawned a sequel, grossed $13.5 million in North America this weekend, and another $60 million overseas. Produced on a budget of $110 million, it has grossed $242.5 million globally, which much of its foreign revenue still to come.
Here's how the top 10 shaped up this weekend:
"Rise of the Planet of the Apes" ($27.5m)
"The Help" ($25.5m)
"Final Destination 5" ($18.4m)
"The Smurfs" ($13.5m)
"30 Minutes or Less" ($13.0m)
"Cowboys & Aliens" ($7.6m)
"Captain America" ($7.1m)
"Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2" ($6.9m)
"Crazy, Stupid, Love" ($6.9m)
"The Change-Up" ($6.2m)