If there has been one consistent surprise at the box office this year, it's kids' flicks.
Pre-release audience polling, called tracking, has a tough time divining the interests of the youngest moviegoers. As a result, studio executives usually rely on the interests of parents as proxies.
But that system is far from exact, and this year it has resulted in a number of family films that beat expectations, including "Paul Blart: Mall Cop," "Hotel for Dogs" and "Hannah Montana."
"G-Force" now has a place on that list. Disney's effects-laden guinea pig action movie came in a surprising No. 1 for the weekend with a studio-estimated $32.2 million worth of ticket sales in the U.S. and Canada. An overwhelming 75% of moviegoers were families.
Studio executives who closely follow tracking had expected the movie to gross in the low to mid-$20 millions.
"We knew we had a really good-playing family movie, but when you're competing against a film like 'Harry Potter,' you can never presume anything," said Mark Zoradi, president of Walt Disney Studios Motion Picture Group.
Although critics had few nice words for "G-Force," audiences were pleased, giving the movie an average grade of B-plus, according to market research firm CinemaScore. That presages a healthy box-office run that could see it ultimately earning more than $100 million.
"G-Force" was helped to its No. 1 finish by the 43% of its theaters that played the movie in digital 3-D, where ticket prices are typically $2 to $3 higher. It also benefited from a surprisingly large drop for "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince."
The sixth film in Warner Bros.' series based on the bestselling books declined 61%. 2007's "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix," which also opened on a Wednesday in July, fell 57.8% on its second weekend.
As of Sunday, the total domestic gross for "Half-Blood Prince" was $221.8 million. Accounting for the 9% rise in ticket prices over the last two years, that puts it about $5 million behind "Order of the Phoenix" at the same point.
The new movie does have one disadvantage, however: It's playing at only four Imax locations, whereas "Order of the Phoenix" was at 91. The large-size screens carry higher ticket prices and tend to lose business at a slow pace.
Dan Fellman, Warner Bros.' domestic distribution president, said that if Imax grosses were stripped from both pictures, "Half-Blood Prince" and "Order of the Phoenix" would have had virtually identical second-weekend drops.
The real test for "Half-Blood Prince" will come Wednesday, when it takes over 162 Imax screens now playing "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen." If interest has stayed constant, its ticket sales should accelerate and at least match those of "Order of the Phoenix," including inflation.
Even if Potter-mania is starting to fade in the U.S., however, Warner Bros. hardly needs to worry. "Half-Blood Prince" continues to perform phenomenally well overseas, where it has earned $405.3 million, bringing the worldwide total to $627.2 million. The movie cost $250 million to produce and about $155 million to market and distribute. Since studios keep about half of their films' ticket sales, Warner Bros. is likely to break even on the theatrical run of "Half-Blood Prince" and profit handsomely on the DVD and in other markets.
Sony Pictures' romantic comedy "The Ugly Truth" overcame withering reviews to open with a solid $27 million and a CinemaScore of A-minus from audiences, who didn't seem to agree with the critics' complaints about its portrayal of women.
There was little interest in the weekend's third new movie, "Orphan," which Warner Bros. distributed for Dark Castle Entertainment. The low-budget horror flick earned $12.8 million.
Underneath all the wide releases, however, 2009's first indie hit appears to be brewing. "(500) Days of Summer" earned $1.6 million at 85 theaters on its second weekend, bringing its total to $3 million. That's a very strong figure for such a small number of locations and puts the romantic comedy in an extremely good position as Fox Searchlight expands it to more than 300 theaters Friday and about 1,000 the next weekend.
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WEEKEND BOX OFFICE
Estimated sales in the U.S. and Canada:
*--* -- Movie 3-day gross Percentag Total Days in e change from -- (studio) (millions) last (millions) release weekend 1 G-Force $32.2 NA $32.2 3 -- (Disney) 2 Harry Potter and the $30 -61% $221.8 12 -- Half-Blood Prince -- (Warner Bros.) 3 The Ugly Truth $27 NA $27 3 -- (Sony) 4 Orphan $12.8 NA $12.8 3 -- (Warner Bros./Dark Castle) 5 Ice Age: Dawn of $8.2 -53% $171.3 26 -- the Dinosaurs -- (Fox) 6 Transformers: $8 -42% $379.1 33 Revenge -- of the Fallen -- (Paramount) 7 The Hangover $6.5 -21% $247.1 52 -- (Warner Bros./Legendary) 8 The Proposal $6.4 -23% $140.1 38 -- (Disney) 9 Public Enemies $4.2 -46% $88.1 26 -- (Universal/Relativi ty) 10 Bruno $2.7 -67% $56.5 17 -- (Universal/Media Rights Capital) *--*
*--* 3-day gross Change Year-to-date gross Change (in millions) from 2008 (in billions) from 2008 $148 -18% $6.22 +8% *--*
Sources: Times research and Hollywood.com Box Office