"Cars" zoomed to an estimated gross of $62.8 million this weekend in the U.S. and Canada, blowing away the box-office competition. But it fell shy of the lofty standard set by its creator Pixar, the computer animation powerhouse.
The family-oriented movie is the first of Pixar's seven releases to open with a box-office tally below the previous one. It averaged $15,759 at 3,985 theaters.
The opening, although strong, fell short of many analysts' expectations. They had expected the movie's opening to bring in at least $70 million, matching the last two Pixar releases.
"Pixar is like the parent who has a straight-A student: One day the child comes home with a B-plus," said Anthony Valencia, an analyst at money management firm TCW in Los Angeles.
The previous Pixar release, "The Incredibles," rang up $70.5 million when it premiered in 2004, and "Finding Nemo" opened at $70.3 million the previous year.
Pixar's first movie was 1995's "Toy Story," which opened at $29.1 million.
"Cars" is the first Pixar release since the animation studio was purchased by Walt Disney Co. for $7.4 billion this year. Disney downplayed the high expectations for "Cars," saying Pixar had produced another hit.
"They are batting 7 for 7," said Chuck Viane, president of distribution for Disney. "This is a home run in anybody's ballpark -- you don't measure the feet."
Viane said the movie posted an opening similar to last year's Disney smash "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe," which premiered at $65.6 million and went on to gross $291.7 million in the U.S. and Canada.
"Cars," which cost an estimated $150 million to $160 million to produce, generated strong reviews, although critics weren't as thrilled as they had been about some of Pixar's films, including its biggest hit, "Finding Nemo."
Analysts expected the movie to ultimately gross $250 million to $300 million in the U.S. and Canada, and as much as $700 million worldwide. But they said the film might have trouble attracting females and foreign audiences because of its male-oriented and distinctly American subject matter.
Even so, "Cars" attracted an audience this weekend that was 49% females, according to Disney, and is sure to be profitable.
"The $63-million opening is mildly below expectations, but the ultimate success of the film will depend on its domestic 'legs' and its international performance," said Lowell Singer, analyst at Cowen & Co. in San Francisco.
If the film shows solid legs -- industry jargon for holding up well at the box office in the coming weeks -- that could set it up for a strong run when it comes out on DVD early next year, Singer said.
Disney appears poised for a big summer, Singer said, with the much-anticipated "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest" set to open July 7.
Although the "Cars" opening could prompt critics of Disney's Pixar purchase to renew complaints that it overpaid, analyst Valencia noted that "Cars" was in the works long before the deal was completed.
He also called the deal a "long-term investment" in Pixar's talent that could only be evaluated after several releases.
Among other new films, 20th Century Fox's horror remake of "The Omen" grossed an estimated $15.5 million in its first weekend at 3,680 theaters, finishing fourth.
The studio released the movie Tuesday to take advantage of the 6/6/06 date, an allusion to the 666 symbol of the Antichrist. In the first six days, it has sold $35.7 million in tickets.
Picturehouse's "A Prairie Home Companion," director Robert Altman's take on Garrison Keillor's popular radio program, reeled in $4.7 million at 760 theaters, ranking seventh for the weekend.
"The response has been very good -- you hear applause during the movie," said Bob Berney, president of Picturehouse, the HBO Films and New Line Cinema joint venture.
He said the studio hoped to expand the droll and folksy musical comedy to 1,100 theaters by the Fourth of July as word of mouth builds.
In its second weekend, Universal Pictures' surprise hit "The Break-Up" slipped 48% to $20.5 million, taking the No. 2 position.
Fox's "X-Men: The Last Stand" was third at $15.6 million. The superhero sequel became the first movie to top $200 million this year in the U.S. and Canada, with a cumulative gross of $201.7 million.
Industrywide, an estimated $156 million worth of tickets were sold, an 8% increase from the same weekend in 2005, Exhibitor Relations Co. said. Year to date, the box office is running 5% ahead of 2005.
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Preliminary results (in millions) based on studio estimates.
*--* Movie 3-day gross Total Cars $62.8 $62.8
The Break-Up 20.5 74.1
X-Men: The Last Stand 15.6 201.7
The Omen 15.5 35.7
Over the Hedge 10.3 130.3
The Da Vinci Code 10.3 189.0
A Prairie Home Companion 4.7 4.7
Mission: Impossible III 3.0 127.5
RV 2.0 65.0
Poseidon 1.8 54.9
*--* Industry total 3-day gross Change (In millions) from 2005 $156.0 +8.4%
YTD gross Change (In billions) from 2005 $3.9 +5.4%
*--* Source: Exhibitor Relations Co. Los Angeles Times