Fox's Planet of the Apes origins film "Rise of the Planet of the Apes" way out-performed weekend projections, opening to $54 million, according to studio estimates.
Directed by relative newcomer Rupert Wyatt, produced by former News Corp. COO Peter Chernin — a guy who knows a thing or two about working with Ruperts — and starring James Franco, the $93 million sequel over-shot its studio's $30 million pre-release call by over $20 million.
'Apes," which enjoyed the fifth biggest August opening ever at 3,648 locations in the U.S. and Canada, also grossed $23.4 million opening in 25 foreign markets.
"When groundbreaking technology services a really great story, that's a really strong combination," noted Chris Aronson, executive VP of distribution for Fox.
"We're thrilled to launch Chernin Entertainment with a film that so positively resonated with audiences," Chernin, who produced the film alongside Dylan Clark, in a statement. "We're proud of the artistic achievement of 'Rise of the Apes," as it is a testament to a smart script, great direction by Rupert Wyatt, stellar actor performances, and amazing visual effects created by the WETA team, and the passion and dedication of the entire crew and our partners at Twentieth Century Fox."
Also opening wide this weekend, Universal comedy "The Change-Up" grossed $13.5 million, just under the soft mid-teens projection for the $52 million film, which was co-financed by Relativity Media.
Also, Warner's "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2" continued to build its legacy, adding $12.2 million domestically to a global total that now stands at $1.134 billion.
The film is third on the all-time worldwide box office chart, trailing only James Cameron films "Titanic" and "Avatar."
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Sony's CG/live-action mesh "The Smurfs" finished second at the weekend box office with $21 million, a strong 43 percent decline from its big opening weekend. The kiddie film, produced for $110 million inhouse by Sony, also finished with $45.2 million overseas this weekend and has grossed $128.9 million after two weeks in theaters.
The Steven Spielberg-produced "Cowboys & Aliens" dropped 57 percent from its disappointing first weekend to $15.7 million. The Jon Favreau-directed sci-fi film, produced for $163 million, has grossed just $67.4 million domestically after two weekends.
In fifth place, Marvel/Paramount's "Captain America: The First Avenger" added $13 million to its three-weekend total and now has $143.2 million domestically.
But the big story was the over-performance of "Rise of the Planet of the Apes."
The movie arrived with exceptional reviews — 81 percent on Rotten Tomatoes. But there hadn't been a new installment to the 43-year-old Planet of the Apes series since 2001's Tim Burton-directed reboot, which featured Mark Wahlberg filling the big astronaut shoes of the gun-toting Charlton Heston. The remake was commercially successful — $362.2 million in 2001 dollars — but critically distained.
Still, more than four decades after Heston first set his crippled space craft on a re-configured Planet Earth in which primates run the show, the Apes series showed surprising brand power.
And it wasn't just old guys who were around for the first five Planet of the Apes movies from 1968-'73, or the two Apes TV series that ran in the 1970s.
In fact, 46 percent of the audience was female. And the movie didn't skew that old — 44 percent of the audience was younger than 25.
"It was a pretty balanced audience," Aronson noted.
Much of the critical lauding went to WETA Digital's computer-animated apes, an overall performance boosted by the acclaimed Andy Serkis — the guy whose computer-enhanced image uplifted "The Lord of the Rings'" Gollum a decade ago.
Across all audience quadrants, "Rise of the Planet of the Apes" merited an A-minus score from moviegoer survey firm Cinemascore.
As for Universal's "The Change-Up," the audience greeted the poorly reviewed comedy with a B Cinemascore.
Big difference between the A-minus and the B.
"The Change-Up" — which featured a swingin' bachelor played by Ryan Reynolds and a put-upon family man played by Jason Bateman switching lives, "Freaky Friday" style — commanded an audience that was 59 percent female and 50 percent over the age of 30.
The fact that David Dobkin's ("Wedding Crashers") R-rated film didn't draw more men — given the trailers featured its two leads drunkenly bonding during simultaneous public urination — seems surprising … but not as surprising as the fact that Bateman ("Extract," "Paul," "The Switch") keeps getting lead roles in comedies. (Although, it should also be written that his supporting role in Warner's "Horrible Bosses" has helped lead that film to $105.2 million through the weekend. Gotta get lucky sometime.)
Also read: 'The Change-Up:' A Sex Comedy That Hates Sex
Overall, the domestic box office was up around 24 percent over the same weekend last year, according to one studio's estimate, with the market riding a pretty darned good summer to slowly recover from a disastrous start of the year.
The summer will finish up over 3 percent over the 2010 tentpole season and the overall 2011 box office is now down just 6.2 percent over 2010 (that figure hovered at around 20 percent just three months ago).
But as far as big summer tentpoles go, "Apes" is perhaps the last hurrah. Next weekend, the fifth installment of Warner's venerable "Final Destination" franchise will look to lead the market, but probably with numbers in the more modest $20 million-$30 million range.
There's also Lionsgate's "Conan the Barbarian" remake on August 19, but by and large, the summer's over at the box office. Time to shop for some school clothes and set up your NFL fantasy league.