Nostalgia dominated cutting-edge at the box office this weekend.
"The Expendables," directed by and starring Sylvester Stallone with a crew of aging action stars, proved far and away the most popular movie in theaters as it sold a strong $35-million worth of tickets in the U.S. and Canada, according to studio estimates.
With men of all ages and a surprising number of women in attendance, it decimated "Scott Pilgrim vs. the World." The well-reviewed melange of video game and other pop culture references, based on a cult favorite series of graphic novels, opened to a weak $10.5 million.
"Eat Pray Love," starring Julia Roberts in an adaptation of the bestselling book about midlife self-discovery, opened to a pretty good $23.7 million but will need strong word-of-mouth to turn into a hit.
The strong start for "Expendables" proved that there's still plenty of goodwill for '80s A-lister Stallone, whose costars include Jason Statham, Jet Li, Eric Roberts, Mickey Rourke and Dolph Lundgren. The movie's explosions and stunts done primarily with real-life physical effects seemed to resonate with audiences at the end of a summer filled with more expensive pictures that relied on computer-generated imagery, such as "Iron Man 2."
"This time of year is perfect for action movies that are kind of the anti-big-budget blockbuster, as 'District 9' and 'Inglourious Basterds' proved last year," said Lionsgate executive vice president of distribution David Spitz.
Though the majority of moviegoers were men, Lionsgate was surprised to find that 40% were women, giving "Expendables" somewhat broader appeal than expected.
"If you had talked to us eight months ago, we would have said we weren't even thinking about getting women," said Spitz.
The movie garnered an average grade of B+, according to market research firm CinemaScore, confirming it to be a crowd-pleaser even if most critics dismissed it.
"The Expendables" cost $82 million to produce, of which a little more than $50 million was covered by foreign presales through financier Avi Lerner's Millennium Films, about $10 million from his NuImage Films and nearly $20 million from Lions Gate, which bought distribution rights in the United States, Canada and Great Britain.
"Expendables" should end up grossing at least $80 million and generate some much-needed evidence of theatrical success as Lions Gate's management fights a takeover attempt by activist investor Carl Icahn, who has criticized the company's spending on movies.
"Scott Pilgrim vs. the World" created real passion among those who turned out, 64% of whom were male and 58% under 25. Fans made "Scott Pilgrim" the No. 1 topic of discussion on Twitter for much of the weekend and gave it an average CinemaScore of A-.
The problem for distributor Universal Pictures, however, is that the rest of the moviegoing public simply wasn't interested.
"It's amazing to me that a picture can poll so well but there just aren't the volumes of people to come out," said Universal distribution president Nikki Rocco.
Universal spent a hefty $85 million to make "Scott Pilgrim," along with a small investment from Relativity Media, according to a person close to the production, though a studio spokeswoman said the final cost after tax rebates was $60 million.
The film looks to be a money loser for Universal, though Rocco said she and other executives were proud to have taken a risk on director Edgar Wright's quirky vision for the movie, which was loyal to the graphic novels.
"Eat Pray Love" opened right in line with expectations, as distributor Sony Pictures hopes the movie is poised for a long box office run. Seventy-two percent of those who went to see it were women, but the studio managed to draw a slightly younger crowd than the book's theme of middle-aged self-discovery would suggest, with 44% under 35 according to exit polls.
If "Eat Pray Love" holds as well as last year's female-oriented "Julie & Julia," which opened in August to $20 million and finished its run in September with a strong $94 million, it will be a solid hit. However, there were signs that audiences may not have loved the new movie as much. While "Julie & Julia" got an average grade of A from CinemaScore and saw ticket sales rise 16% from Friday to Saturday, a sign of good buzz, "Eat Pray Love" was rated B and its grosses dropped 4% on its second day in theaters.
Women gave the movie a stronger B+ while men, presumably along for a date, gave it a C+.
Sony spent about $60 million to make "Eat Pray Love" compared to $40 million for "Julie & Julia," so stakes for the new movies are higher. Any shortfalls on the domestic front, however, could be covered overseas. While "Julie" grossed a soft $35 million from foreign countries, Sony executives believe "Eat Pray Love," which takes place primarily in Italy, India and Indonesia, has higher potential.
"I believe this movie will do double what it does here internationally," said Sony distribution president Rory Bruer.