The tentpole season has been ushered out by an unlikely juggernaut as the adult drama, "The Help," won the domestic box office for a third straight weekend with $19 million, according to studio estimates.
The DreamWorks civil rights-era movie, which stars Emma Stone, easily surpassed two new horror entries to take the four-day Labor Day box office:
>> Weinstein/Dimension's "Apollo 18" opened to $10.7 million, the low side of its pre-release tracking, but is definitely no disaster, given the film's $5 million production budget and moderate marketing costs;
>> Relativity Media's "Shark Night 3D" started out to $10.3 million, right around projections for a PG-13 film shot in the mid-$20 million range.
Read also: Horror Movies Hit the Dead Zone This Summer
Perhaps the most surprising performance of the weekend came from a movie long left on the shelf. The Nazi-hunting drama "The Debt," which stars Helen Mirren, grossed a solid $12.6 million. The film was made by Miramax when the specialty division was still owned by Disney, and orphaned during the library sale to Ron Tutor and his FilmYard Holdings. Focus Features distributed the film.
The strong performance surpassed Focus' comparative models, including 2005's "The Constant Gardener," which went on to gross $82.5 million worldwide and win an Academy Award for co-star Rachel Weisz.
Overall, it was a slow Labor Day weekend at multiplexes, with the domestic motion picture business narrowly off — about 3 percent — from the same weekend last year.
Story continues below chart:
And the two horror movies continued the unspectacular trend of the genre this summer.
Some box-office watchers predicted that "Apollo 18" — a film based on a "found-footage" concept similar to "The Blair Witch Project" and "Paranormal Actitivy" — would gross in the mid-teens and challenge "The Help" for the crown.
"We would have loved to done a higher number, but it is what it is," said Weinstein distribution chief Erik Lomis. "This is not an expensive film, and we're going to make money off of it."
Commanding an audience that was 57 percent male and 56 percent 25 or younger, "Apollo 18" also featured a moderate launch campaign that was heavy on internet advertising and light on expensive TV money — the total P&A spend was well below $20 million.
Timur Bekmambetov (the director of "Wanted") produced the film, which featured a no-name cast and was released into 3,328 theaters across the U.S. and Canada.
Meanwhile, "Shark Night 3D" debuted in 2,806 North American locations, about 2,500 of them showing the film in 3D.
Like "Apollo 18," the film managed to get the majority of its seats filled with patrons under the age of 25 — 57 percent. It also will make money, despite its modest performance, according to the studio.
The film was shot by Incentive Filmed Entertainment and Sierra Affinity for a cost said to be in the mid-$20 million range. Relativity acquired U.S. distribution rights without a fee, agreeing to pay the modest cost of marketing it to its narrow, internet-using young audience.
The film — which received a "C" grade from research firm Cinemascore — was distributed in Canada by E1 and pre-sold through the rest of the world.
As for "The Help," the film has now grossed $123.4 million in the U.S. and Canada, but should finally fall from box-office grace next weekend, when Steven Soderbergh film "Contagion" and Lionsgate mixed-martial-arts movie "Warrior" debut. (Lionsgate didn't release any numbers for its Sunday sneak peak of the movie, but said it received a "standing ovation" from the crowd at New York's Union Square.)
Here's a look at the top 10 for the four-day Labor Day weekend box office:
“The Help” ($19.0m)
“The Debt” ($12.6m)
“Apollo 18” ($10.7m)
“Rise of the Planet of the Apes” ($10.3m)
“Shark Night 3D” ($10.3m)
“Our Idiot Brother” ($7.0m)
“Spy Kids: All the Time in the World” ($6.6m)
“Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark” ($6.1m)
“The Smurfs” ($5.6m)