Bringing down the curtain on a summer despairingly high on fizzle and low on sizzle, Hollywood received a pair of welcome deliveries as "Transporter 2" brought in a Labor Day weekend record of $20.3 million and "The Constant Gardener" cultivated a tidy $10.8 million.
Labor Day weekend is not traditionally considered one of the bigger ones of the year for moviegoing, making the Friday-through-Monday haul all the more surprising. Studio executives seized the moment to turn their backs on a disappointing summer -- one in which the box office remained almost 10% behind last year and moviemakers were blasted for being out of touch -- and look forward to unveiling some of the year's biggest movies (the latest "Harry Potter" installment and "King Kong" among them) as well as Oscar contenders.
"The fall is now open," said Jack Foley, president of distribution for Focus Features, which released one of those Oscar hopefuls, "The Constant Gardener." "It's a good way to start the new season."
In a summer when the movie slate proved less than satisfactory, particularly for action movies, audiences apparently felt "Transporter 2" was a worthwhile bet.
"It's escapism, plain and simple," said Bert Livingston, a senior vice president, general sales, of 20th Century Fox, which released "Transporter 2."
Livingston said audience demographics for the film skewed "heavily male at 59% and 52% under 25."
Overall, the top films were strong enough to push business for the weekend 7% ahead of the comparable Labor Day holiday period last year, according to tracking firm Nielsen EDI. That was particularly welcome news, since "conventional industry wisdom is that kids are out doing back-to-school shopping and their parents are dragging them around," Foley said.
Late August and Labor Day weekend have developed a reputation as a dumping ground of sorts for movies that have been collecting dust on the shelf -- movies such as "The Brothers Grimm," which opened last weekend, or genre fare such as "Jeepers Creepers" or "Anacondas: The Hunt for the Blood Orchid."
But that's changing, especially as moviemakers scan the horizon for a strategic opening.
"If you look historically at stuff that not only has appeal to the masses but to adults, you'll find that August is a good adult month," Foley said. "That became particularly apparent when 'The Sixth Sense' came out, 'Space Cowboys' ... 'The Thomas Crown Affair' -- those films appealed to our audience.... If you can do well in the beginning of August or middle of August, why can't you do well programming adult films for the end of August?"
The sophisticated and well-reviewed "Gardener" posted the best single-theater gross in the country -- $91,180 for Friday through Sunday at Union Square in New York City, according to the tracking service Rentrak -- and the best per-venue average of any film in the top 10, in fewer than half as many locations (1,346) as "Transporter 2" (3,303) or the No. 2 film, "The 40 Year-Old Virgin" (2,901), according to studio estimates for Friday through Monday.
In total, "The Constant Gardener" has brought in $12.5 million since its Wednesday opening.
Theater exit surveys for "The Constant Gardener" on Saturday indicated that 62% of the audience was viewers 35 and older, with 56% of them women, up from 53% and 48%, respectively, on Wednesday. The unscientific but relatively reliable research was conducted at suburban multiplexes near Seattle, Burbank, Kansas City, Mo., and Boston.
"These numbers are a measure of the amount of adults that are around and are willing to go to the movies if we give them something of substance," Foley said.
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Preliminary results (in millions) based on studio projections.
*--* Movie 4-day gross Total Transporter 2 $20.25 $20.25
The 40 Year-Old Virgin 16.55 72.0
The Constant Gardener 10.8 12.5
Red Eye 9.3 45.4
The Brothers Grimm 7.9 27.6
Four Brothers 6.4 64.4
Wedding Crashers 5.8 195.8
March of the Penguins 5.4 63.4
The Skeleton Key 4.1 43.8
The Cave 3.7 11.7
Source: Nielsen EDI
Los Angeles Times