It was a weekend in which star power clearly made a difference.
Warner Bros.' star-laden "Contagion" matched solid pre-release tracking to win the domestic box office with $23.1 million, according to studio estimates.
Meanwhile, showing up with equally powerful critical buzz, a much more uplifting storyline, but a far less recognizable cast, Lionsgate's "Warrior" got off to a disappointing $5.6 million start at 1,869 locations, according to rival-studio data.
Two other films opened widely this weekend: Sony R-rated comedy "Bucky Larson: Born to Be a Star," produced by Adam Sandler's Happy Madison endured a disappointing $1.5 million start at 1,500 locations.
And "Creature," a movie produced by former Universal president Sid Sheinberg's Bubble Factory, endured what Boxofficemojo ranked as the worst opening of all time — a mortifying $331,000 — for a film opening in more than 1,500 locations (it started out in 1,507). Without any qualifiers, it's the fifth worst opening of all time, finishing just behind 2010's "Transylmania" and "Virginity Hit."
Full report continues below chart:
During a weekend in which the box office was essentially flat with the same weekend last year (down 2 percent, according to one studio), moviegoers finally turned away from "The Help's" feel-good Civil Rights story, and instead opted for Steven Soderbergh's sweeping epic in which about one-eighth the human population get sick and dies.
"Contagion," produced by Participant Media for $60 million, featured solid performances from Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow, Lawrence Fishburne, Kate Winslet, Bryan Cranston, Marion Cotillard and Jude Law.
"It was almost like a traffic accident that you can't look away from," noted Warner's executive VP of distribution, Jeff Goldstein, remarking on the PG-13-rated "Contagion," which featured stars like Paltrow dying in decidedly unglamorous style.
Yep, with the nation gripped by double-digit unemployment, and the somber decade-on remembrance of 9/11 at hand, audiences somehow embraced an anxious movie in which even Winslet's character, a CDC operative, not to mention a small child, succumb to a vicious virus forged by pigs and bats living together.
"Contagion," which drew an 82 percent fresh ranking from Rotten Tomatoes, arrived in 3,222 North American theaters Friday with tracking data that some summer tentpoles would envy.
Some analysts outside Warner were predicting an opening in the mid-$20 million range — or even $30 million — but Warner kept it's guidance at around $18 million – $20 million. Comparative models including "The Town" and "The Social Network" — both heavy dramas that were critically praised and released at around the same time last year — suggested the low-20s was the right call.
"One thing Soderbergh is known for is putting together good, marquee casts in movies," Goldstein noted. "In this case, it really did help."
For its part, "Warrior" — which also drew an 82 percent ranking from Rotten Tomatoes, not to mention a very nice A grade from buzz researcher Cinemascore — could have used some star power of its own.
While critics generally lavished praise on leads Joel Edgerton and Tom Hardy, it was generally conceded that the two actors have not yet reached the kind of profile needed to carry a major marketing campaign.
Lionsgate also understood that mixed martial arts, as a sport, has not acheived the kind of mainstream acceptance that, say, boxing has.
Paramount's "The Fighter," also produced for around $25 million with similar fraternal themes, starred Mark Wahlberg and Christian Bale, and grossed $12.1 million last December when it went wide.
With that in mind, Lionsgate set its expectations at around $8 million.
Coming up a few million short of that mark, Lionsgate officials are a little disappointed, but not deterred.
"We're banking on the fact that word of mouth is so tremendous for this movie that ultimately we're going to find an audience," said David Spitz, executive VP of distribution for Lionsgate.
Here's how the top 10 finished this weekend:
"The Help" ($8.7m)
"The Debt" ($4.9m)
"Rise of the Planet of the Apes" ($3.9m)
"Shark Night 3D" ($3.5m)
"Apollo 18" ($2.9m)
"Our Idiot Brother" ($2.8m)
"Spy Kids: All the Time in the World" ($2.5m)