A smashing Saturday powered the 3D animated comedy “The Lego Movie” past already high expectations on its way to a massive $69.1 million debut weekend at the North American box office.
The first animated release from Warner Bros. in three years saw a huge spike in its grosses – to nearly $31 million, up roughly 80 percent from Friday – when families began turning out at the 3,375 mainly 3D theaters. They turned it into the second-biggest February opening ever, behind only the $83 million rolled up by Mel Gibson’s “Passion of the Christ” back in 2004, and 2014’s biggest release, too.
It was big movie weekend nationally, with attendance running more than 50 percent ahead of last year. George Clooney‘s World War II art heist saga “The Monuments Men” opened with $22.7 million for second, with “Ride Along” third. The Kevin Hart-Ice Cube comedy, No. 1 for the past three weekends, took in $9.3 million and lifted its domestic total of $105 million. But the weekend’s other wide opener, the teen fantasy “Vampire Academy,” flat-lined with just over $4 million and was seventh.
Warner Bros. knew going in that had a hit with “The Lego Movie,” with most analysts projecting a $50 million opening. But when fears that bad weather would be widespread on the East Coast failed to materialize and the minivan crowd mobilized Saturday, it blew past that. In the process, it became clear that the movie based on the plastic building pieces would indeed launch a franchise and become the cornerstone of an effort to get back in the animation game for the studio behind Bugs Bunny, Porky Pig and the Looney Tunes classics.
Disney, DreamWorks Animation, Fox’s Blue Sky Studios and Illumination have stolen that thunder in recent years, but Warner Bros. distribution chief Dan Fellman saw the success of “The Lego Movie” as a watershed.
“This is a signal that we can play in that arena and we’re going to be right in that game,” he told TheWrap Sunday. He wouldn’t get into specifics, but said details on the studio’s animation push and its partnership with Lego — work has already begun on a sequel, as TheWrap first reported — would be coming soon.
Village Roadshow, the Lego Group, Vertigo Entertainment and Lin Pictures are behind the “Lego Movie,” produced for a relatively modest $60 million. Dan Lin and Roy Lee produced, and Australia’s Animal Logic handled the animation.
This is by far the biggest hit for writer-directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller, the team behind “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs” and “21 Jump Street.” Chris Pratt of TV’s “Park and Recreation” voices the movie’s hero Emmet, who is mistaken for the master builder who can save the Lego universe from Lord Business (Will Ferrell). The huge voice case includes Will Arnett, Elizabeth Banks, Channing Tatum, Will Forte, Nick Offerman,Alison Brie, Jonah Hill and Morgan Freeman.
Word of mouth plainly helped. The critics have loved it – it’s at 96 percent positive on Rotten Tomatoes – and audiences gave it an “A” CinemaScore. The studio made clear in its marketing that “The Lego Movie” had enough humor to keep parents and adults amused, and that paid off in a very broad base. Fifty-nine percent of the crowd was over 18 years of age, and it was 55 percent male.
Many of the adults who turned out shelled out for 3D, and the 35 percent ratio for “The Lego Movie” was considerably higher than that of recent family hits like “Frozen.”
The “Lego Movie” success is a big step for Warner Bros. Just last year the studios rebooted its Superman franchise with “Man of Steel,” opening the door to a DC Comics-based series, along the lines of what Disney has done with its Marvel Universe. A Batman vs. Superman movie is planned for 2016, and the fact “The Lego Movie” is filled with cartoon takes on those characters was no accident.
A February launch is unusual for an animated movie because kids are in school; the previous best debut was the $25 million that “Gnomeo and Juliet” managed in 2011. Going in February, as opposed to summer when the field was more crowded, was part of the plan, Fellman said.
“We knew we had a great movie here and it was important that we launch this franchise strongly, so we thought it made sense for us to take a risk,” Fellman said.
A solid start and the momentum that would bring were critical for Sony’s “The Monuments Men,” which had not drawn strong reviews (33 percent on Rotten Tomatoes), and it got both.
“It always comes down to what the audiences think, and they plainly enjoyed this film,” Sony distribution head Rory Bruer said Sunday, after audiences gave it a “B+” Cinemascore. “George Clooney did a lot to promote this movie as well, and that helped.”
Clooney produced and wrote “Monuments Men” with Grant Heslov, and directed and stars as well. The cast includes Matt Damon, Bill Murray, Cate Blanchett, Jean Dujardin, John Goodman and Bob Balaban.
The opening is between that of “Argo” ($19.5 million) and “Captain Phillips” ($25.7 million), and both of those similarly older-skewing films went on to top $100 million domestically. The crowd for “Monuments Men” was 75 percent over the age of 35, and 52 percent female.
“Vampire Academy” was the first foray into the young-adult market for the Weinstein Company, which picked up the modestly budgeted film based on the Richelle Mead novels at Berlin’s European Film Market last year.
Originally titled “Blood Sisters,” the PG-13 fantasy stars Zoey Deutch, Danila Koslovsky and Lucy Fry as academy girls caught in the crossover world of vampires and humans. It’s directed by Mark Waters of “Mean Girls” fame, and scripted by his brother Daniel Waters.
The critics tore it up and audiences at 2,676 theaters weren’t thrilled, giving it a “B-” CinemaScore.