Sony's efforts to gain a foothold in the highly competitive computer-generated animation market continue to generate mixed results, as "Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs" opened to a so-so $30.1 million this weekend in the U.S. and Canada, according to studio estimates.
Three other new movies -- "Jennifer's Body," "Love Happens" and "The Informant" -- all had soft debuts of $10.5 million or less.
Accounting for three years of ticket price inflation and the fact that 59% of theaters playing "Cloudy" charged extra for digital 3-D screens, its launch was only a little stronger than Sony's first animated film, "Open Season," which collected $23.6 million on its first weekend in late September 2006.
Although it's relatively strong for the historically slow movie-going month of September, the opening of "Cloudy" is decent but not spectacular compared with its $100-million budget.
It also keeps Sony behind several of its more experienced animation competitors -- DreamWorks, Disney's Pixar and Fox's Blue Sky -- all of whose movies usually have bigger openings.
The studio's second animated movie, 2007's "Surf's Up," was a box-office flop that opened to just $17.6 million.
Sony Pictures last year installed new management at its animation unit in an effort to improve its performance and better integrate it with the rest of the studio.
Rory Bruer, Sony's distribution president, described the "Cloudy" opening as "a pretty wow number" and compared it to Disney's "Bolt," which had a $26.2-million opening weekend last year and went on to sell $114.1 million worth of tickets domestically.
That movie played over the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays, however, giving it better exposure to the family audience that drives the performance of most animated features.
"Cloudy" appears more similar to "Open Season," as the two movies opened at the same time of year and both got a strong average grade of A-minus from audiences, according to market research firm CinemaScore.
"Open Season" ultimately grossed $85.1 million domestically.
If "Cloudy" stays on a similar track, it should end up at about $100 million.
It remains to be seen how Sony's new animated film will perform overseas, although it did open at No. 1 this weekend in four countries: Britain, Mexico, Chile and Ecuador.
"Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs" will probably lose most of its 3-D screens, save for 127 in the Imax format, in two weeks when Disney re-releases the two "Toy Story" movies.
"Jennifer's Body," financed by Fox and Dune Entertainment for $16 million, was the weekend's biggest disappointment, opening to just $6.8 million. Those who did come to the comedic horror film starring Megan Fox didn't respond well; it got a C-minus from CinemaScore.
"Love Happens," from Universal and Relativity Media, opened to a mediocre $8.5 million.
The $18-million production budget was already covered by foreign pre-sales, meaning the two financiers shouldn't lose much money.
The romantic drama ends a hot streak at the box office for star Jennifer Aniston that has included three consecutive hits: "The Break-Up," "Marley and Me" and "He's Just Not That Into You."
The Steven Soderbergh-directed quirky comedy "The Informant" didn't get much love from audiences either, earning a C-minus CinemaScore.
The $22-million production from Warner Bros., Participant Media and Groundswell Productions grossed a weak $10.5 million.
It performed best in major cities like Los Angeles, New York and Boston, but poorly in Southern cities and smaller markets. Dan Fellman, president of domestic distribution for Warner, said the studio's recent decision to open the movie wide, instead of starting in a few cities and expanding, proved wise because of that disparity.
"We would have gotten a false positive from those markets and overreacted," he said.
New independent studio Apparition opened its first film, Jane Campion's "Bright Star," to a respectable $190,000 at 19 theaters.
WEEKEND BOX OFFICE
Estimated sales in the U.S. and Canada:
Movie 3-day gross % change from Total Days in (studio) (millions) last weekend (millions) release
1 Cloudy With a $30.1 NA $30.1 3 Chance of Meatballs (Sony)
2 The Informant $10.5 NA $10.5 3 (Warner Bros./Participan t/ Groundswell)
3 Tyler Perry's I $10.1 -57% $37.9 10 Can Do Bad All by Myself (Lionsgate)
4 Love Happens $8.5 NA $8.5 3 (Universal/Relat ivity)
5 Jennifer's Body $6.8 NA $6.8 3 (Fox/Dune)
6 9 (Focus $5.5 -48% $22.8 12 Features)
7 Inglourious $3.6 -41% $109.9 31 Basterds (Weinstein/Unive rsal)
8 All About Steve $3.4 -40% $26.7 17 (Fox)
9 Sorority Row $2.5 -51% $8.9 10 (Summit)
10 The Final $2.4 -57% $62.4 24 Destination (Warner Bros./New Line) *--*
*--* 3-day gross Change Year-to-date gross Change (in millions) From 2008 (in billions) from 2008 $100.0 13.6% $7.7 +7.9% *--*
Sources: Times research and Hollywood.com Box-Office