Sony’s Aliens Exceed Expectations, Keep Summer B.O. Sizzling

Warner-New Line’s “The Time Traveler’s Wife” opens third with $19.2 mil.

Last Updated: August 16, 2009 @ 11:32 AM

Sunday final:

Starting out on a record-breaking pace in May, the summer box office will finish with a strong closing kick in August, with Sony’s space-alien-immigration-themed "District 9" outperforming expectations with a big $37 million opening weekend.

Produced by Peter Jackson, directed by South African Neill Blomkamp and featuring a cast of relatively obscure actors, the R-rated sci-fi film, independently produced and licensed to Sony for $25 million, overshot projections by about $10 million, garnering an opening audience that skewed 64% male.

"You had the Peter Jackson pedigree for the film, sure, but lets be real about it," noted Rory Bruer, president of distribution for Sony.

"You have a director who is unknown and a cast that is unknown and a title… ‘District 9,’ what does that mean? We knew we had a terrific movie, but if we had opened in the mid-$20 million range, we would have been pretty happy with that."

Paramount popcorn film "G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra," meanwhile, still found enough male moviegoers left over for a $22.5 million second weekend, rallying with a strong $9 million Saturday and declining only 59% from its opening, according to studio estimates.

The $175 million popcorn film now has taken in $99.4 million domestically, and Paramount is confident it will creep to $300 million worldwide and attain profitability.

"I think when you have a movie like ‘District 9’ that crosses our demo the way it does, you expect to take a back seat on Friday," said Paramount exec VP Don Harris.

Finishing third, Warner-New Line’s women-targeted "The Time Traveler’s Wife" will conclude its first three days with $19.2 million, in line with industry expectations for the romance-fantasy drama starring Eric Bana and Rachel McAdams.

Among other openings this weekend, Paramount Vantage’s low-budget, R-rated comedy "The Goods: Live Hard, Sell Hard" starring Jeremy Piven is projected to finish the weekend in sixth place with $5.4 million, roughly on par with studio expectations.

Opening in only 927 theaters, meanwhile, Disney’s animated "Ponyo" from Academy Award winning filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki placed ninth, finishing with $3.5 million.

Summit Entertainment’s teen-targeted "Bandslam" opened out of the top 10, taking in a disappointing $2.3 million for its first three days. The film was co-produced by Summit and Walden Media for $15 million.

Among box-office imcumbents, Sony comedy "Julie and Julia," directed by Nora Ephron and starring Meryl Streep, will conclude its second weekend with $12.4 million, down 41 percent from its opener and giving the $40 million film a two-week domestic take of $43.7 million.

In fifth place right behind "Julia," Disney’s Jerry Bruckheimer family film "G-Force" declined only 29% week-to-week and is now at $99 million domestically.

Managing to cling onto 10th place in its third week of release, Universal’s Judd Apatow dramedy "Funny People" added another $3 million and is now up to $47.9 million — still a long way away from recouping even its $91.5 million production budget.

For its part, "G.I. Joe" was figured by most box-office watchers to be the last big hit of the summer season, which going into the weekend had generated about $3.6 billion in North America since it started May 1, less than a percentage point behind last summer’s record-breaking revenue pace.

However, the surprising strength of "District 9" has pushed the summer back ahead of 2008.

"Given the economy, to come in slightly up on revenue and flat on attendance is a pretty good result," said Paramount exec VP Don Harris, remarking on the broader box office scenario.

Saturday update:

Sony’s alien-themed "District 9" scored an impressive $14.2 million opening Friday, according to studio estimates, putting it on track for a $35 million weekend that exceeded the high pre-release expectations for the Peter Jackson-produced pick-up.

The strong play for the R-rated dark sci-fi movie among young-male audiences came at the expense of last weekend’s box-office champ, Paramount’s "G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra," which dropped 68 percent from its opening but is still on pace for a $23 million weekend.

Narrowly behind "G.I. Joe" in third place is Warner Bros-New Line’s femme-targeted "The Time Traveler’s Wife," which opened to $7.7 million Friday and is on pace to finish its first three days at just under $23 million.

A romantic drama starring Eric Bana as a man with a genetic pre-disposition to compulsive, spontaneous time travel, the movie took audience away from Sony’s Nora Ephron-directed, Meryl-Streep-starring "Julie and Julia," but not too much — the $40 million comedy started its second weekend down only 44% and is on pace to finish the weekend in fourth place with a two-week domestic bounty of $42.9 million.

Also opening this weekend was Paramount Vantage R-rated comedy "The Goods: Live Hard, Sell Hard," which — at least in part due to star Jeremy Piven’s relentless selling of the film on the talk-show circuit — opened on par with expectations at $2 million Friday and is expected to reach $5.6 million for the weekend.

Meanwhile, despite playing in only 927 venues, Disney’s new Hayao Miyazaki film "Ponyo" opened to $1.2 million, with weekend estimates for the G-rated animated title at $3.2 million.

Summit Entertainment’s "Bandslam," meanwhile, opened out of the top 10, taking in only $880,000 its first day, putting it on pace for $2.6 million weekend. Summit and Walden Media split the bill on the teen-targeted film’s $15 million production cost, as well as its marketing tab.

Overall, according to studio estimates, overall domestic box office revenue should approach $140 million this weekend, a 17 percent increase over the same period last year that featured the $25.8 million opening of R-rated comedy "Tropic Thunder," as well as the strong continuing runs of record-breaker "The Dark Knight" and "The Pineapple Express."

Going into the weekend, total revenue for this summer’s domestic box office stood at $3.6 billion, less than a percentage point behind last summer’s record-breaking haul.

Leading the charge toward a potential new all-time mark is "District 9," a $30 million film for which Sony spent $25 million to distribute in North America, as well as in the U.K., Latin America, Asia and several other territories.

Riding a clever "aliens-are-coming!" viral marketing campaign, and strong fanboy buzz coming out of Comic-Con last month, Sony had predicted a "high 20s" opening for the film going into the weekend.

Here’s how the top 10 shaped up Friday:

District 9 ($14.2 m)

The Time Traveler’s Wife ($7.7 m)

G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra ($7.0 m)

Julie and Julia ($3.6 m)

G-Force ($2.1 m)

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (2.8 m)

The Goods: Live Hard, Sell Hard (2.0 m)

The Ugly Truth (1.5 m)

Ponyo (1.2 m)

500 Days of Summer (880,000)

Thursday preview:

The weekend box office promises to get crowded this weekend, with Sony’s sci-fi film “District 9” aiming squarely at Paramount’s “G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra."

It’s a battle for women’s eyes as well as Warner Bros-New Line’s “The Time Traveler’s Wife” will try to take down Sony’s “Julie & Julia,” which opened last week to $20 million.

Meanwhile, with the dog days of August traditionally a place for niche-targeted films, several other movies are entering the domestic market, including Paramount Vantage’s R-rated comedy “The Goods: Live Hard, Sell Hard” starring Jeremy Piven, Disney’s G-rated Hayao Miyazaki title “Ponyo” and Summit Entertainment’s teenybopper-aimed “Bandslam.”

But the big story this week is “District 9,” a $30 million film produced by Peter Jackson out of South Africa and directed by Neill Blomkamp.

Focused on the assimilation into Earth culture by a group of marooned space aliens, the film is riding a wave of positive fanboy buzz that was only accentuated last month at Comic-Con. On Thursday, “District 9” registered an impressively high 94 percent score on movie-review site Rotten Tomatoes.

Sony, which paid $25 million for domestic distribution rights to the R-rated “District 9,” in addition to foreign territories including the U.K., Latin America and most of Asia, could recoup its investment in just a couple of weeks.

A North American opening somewhere in the $25 million-to-$30 million range at 3,050 theaters is likely this week. The film opens Thursday at midnight at 1,400 theaters. 

"There’s a certain 17-34-year-old male fan base that is stoked about this picture,” said Rory Bruer, president of worldwide distribution for Sony Pictures.

The entry of such a strong male-targeted film should have a direct impact on last weekend’s box-office champ, Paramount popcorn film “G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra,” which took in $54.7 million in its first three days.

Tracking estimates are predicting “G.I. Joe” to drop as much as 65 percent this weekend, a precipitous fall that would still yield the $175 million film a week-two North American bounty of around $20 million.

For his part, Paramount exec VP Don Harris believes the PG-rated “G.I. Joe” “plays a bit too broad and too multi-cultural” to take that big a hit.

“If ‘District 9’ does score in the high 20s, they will probably beat us,” he conceded. “But I would think because people like ‘G.I. Joe’ and we have a pretty broad reach, that (estimated drop) might be too high.”

The fierce competition for young-male audience members didn’t keep Paramount Vantage from entering R-rated comedy “The Goods” into the fray. Coming in with a 10 percent Rotten Tomatoes score, the used-car-sales-themed film stars Piven in his fast-talking “Entourage” mode, alongside Ed Helms, Ving Rhames and Ken Jeong.

Produced for around $20 million, Paramount’s Harris predicts the film will open at more than $5 million. “This isn’t a big movie,” he said. “We’re just hoping to find a niche and do a little business.”

"The Time Traveler’s Wife" stars Eric Bana as a compulsive time-hopper and Rachel McAdams as the spouse who puts up with it. While reviews have been middling to negative, it’s tracking moderately and should take a bite out of ‘Julie & Julia’” with an opening of somewhere around $17 million to $18 million.

Meanwhile, opening in just over 800 locations will be the Disney-released Miyazaki film “Ponyo” from acclaimed director Miyazaki and his Studio Ghibli. Miyazaki is the filmmaker behind “Spirited Away,” the 2003 Oscar winner for best animated feature, as well as “Howl’s Moving Castle,” which was nominated for the same prize in 2004.

For its part, Summit Entertainment is looking for the PG-rated “Bandslam” to exploit a kids and tween market that is slightly more open, with Warner’s “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince” and Disney’s “G-Force” in the mature phases of their respective domestic releases.

With Summit and Walden Media splitting “Bandslam’s” $15 million production budget, as well as its marketing costs, the film, starring Lisa Kudrow as a rock-band mom, is projected to open to about $5 million.