When box office returns started coming in Friday afternoon, the heist film "Takers" looked like the clear winner.
But as the sun faded on the West Coast, the horror movie "The Last Exorcism" leaped into the lead, ultimately grossing $9.5 million for the day, compared with $7.5 million for "Takers."
The reason? "Takers," with stars including Chris Brown, T.I. and Zoe Saldana, generated disproportionately high interest among African Americans and had strong performances in East Coast cities such as Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., with large black populations. An estimated 54% of those who saw "Exorcism," meanwhile, were Latino, so the movie did particularly well in the Southwest and California, generating its biggest business in Los Angeles.
On Saturday, however, those numbers reversed, as "Takers" generated $7.7 million compared with $7.1 million for "Exorcism." Word of mouth, it seemed, was much better for the heist film, which got an average grade of B according to market research firm CinemaScore. But audiences gave the horror flick a dismal grade of D, and the bad buzz was reflected in its Friday-to-Saturday drop.
Ultimately, the two movies ended up in a virtual tie for the weekend. "The Last Exorcism" sold $21.3 million worth of tickets in the U.S. and Canada, according to a Sunday morning estimate by distributor Lionsgate, while "Takers" took in $21 million, according to distributor Sony Pictures. When final weekend tallies are in, the two films could switch places.
The only thing certain is that not many moviegoers took up director James Cameron's invitation to return to Pandora. "Avatar: Special Edition," which added nine minutes of new footage to last winter's blockbuster and played only on digital 3-D and Imax screens, grossed a soft $4 million, along with $4.8 million overseas in 14 foreign markets.
That's not much compared with the $2.7 billion already grossed by the science-fiction epic, which was a bestselling DVD when it was released in April.
Both of the weekend's new films in wide release did strong business given their relatively low budgets.
"Takers," which also stars Matt Dillon and Paul Walker, cost $32 million to produce and opened on the high end of what Sony typically hopes for from its genre label Screen Gems. Its debut is particularly impressive given that it played in 668 fewer theaters than "Last Exorcism."
"We felt like we took the right theaters for it," said Sony distribution President Rory Bruer. "It tends to have more of a big-city appeal."
Lionsgate, meanwhile, paid less than $1 million for domestic distribution rights to "Last Exorcism," which was independently produced on a 23-day schedule in New Orleans for $1.5 million. Even with marketing costs, it's a big win for the studio and the movie's financiers, who will share the profits.
"The reality is that when we made this movie we were just hoping it would get a theatrical release," said producer Marc Abraham.
For Lionsgate, the excellent opening for "Last Exorcism," along with the strong performance for the action hit "The Expendables," has made for a very strong August. The independent studio had a tough first half of 2010 with such box-office disappointments as "Killers," "Kick-Ass" and "From Paris With Love."
"When we acquired this film we would have been happy to end up with $21 million in total box office," said Lionsgate executive vice president of distribution David Spitz.
Despite strong reviews, bad word-of-mouth on "Last Exorcism" means it will probably disappear from theaters quickly and ultimately gross between $40 million and $50 million, lower than where "Takers" is likely to finish.