Young adults powered summer's riskiest movie to the top of the box office chart this weekend, while families failed to turn out for what is looking like summer's biggest flop.
Despite a divide in reactions along age lines, director Christopher Nolan's thriller "Inception" opened to a strong $60.4 million, according to an estimate from distributor Warner Bros.
Walt Disney Studios' new version of the classic tale "The Sorcerer's Apprentice," meanwhile, sold a weak $17.4-million worth of tickets this weekend and $24.5 million since it debuted Wednesday. That's the worst opening for any big-budget film this summer.
It came in third at the box office behind "Despicable Me," which drew much of the family audience "Sorcerer's" was after. Universal Pictures' animated comedy declined 42% from its strong opening to $32.7 million, indicating that word-of-mouth was relatively strong.
While "Inception," which stars Leonardo DiCaprio as an agent who invades targets' dreams, is not a mega-hit out of the gate, it got off to a very good start. That's particularly true considering it's one of the few high-profile movies this summer that's not a sequel or based on a book or video game.
Younger audiences seemed to love the movie's plot, praised by some critics as complex and criticized by others as confusing, as well as its novel visual tricks, but older adults were more mixed. Moviegoers under 25 gave "Inception" an average grade of A, according to market research firm CinemaScore; those over 25 gave it a B and the over-50 crowd gave it a B-.
The highest-ever opening for a film not based on source material was $77 million for "Avatar" last winter. "Inception" failed to reach that stratsophere, it seems, because of its narrow appeal. With a PG-13 rating it couldn't get children, while adults over 35 simply didn't turn out in large numbers, representing only 27% of the audience.
"Our core showed up, and they loved it," Dan Fellman, president of domestic distribution for Warner Bros., said of the young crowds. "I totally understand that those in the older age groups got lost in it, and so that group is polarized."
But while the movie's appeal was narrow, it was also deep. Fellman said he's confident that the enthusiasm of younger fans will translate into strong word-of-mouth and repeat viewings.
"The key here is to have a passionate group of people who gave it such strong recommendations," he said.
Warner and Legendary Pictures, which together spent $160 million to produce "Inception," will need it to play well for several weeks to make good on their sizable investment, which also includes more than $100 million in worldwide marketing costs.
"Inception" has virtually no chance of approaching the $1 billion worldwide gross of Nolan's last movie, "The Dark Knight," which the studio cited regularly in advertisements for the new picture. But if "Inception" plays well in the coming weeks it could aproach $200 million domestically and rake in that much or more overseas, becoming a solid hit.
"Inception" got off to a solid start in its first major foreign market, opening to $8.6 million in Great Britain.
Disney, which spent $150 million to make "The Sorcerer's Apprentice," knew the film's advertising was not generating much interest among audiences and made several moves to counteract that weakness, including pushing up the opening from Friday to Wednesday to create pre-weekend buzz and offering 2-for-1 tickets online. But audiences just didn't take to the picture, despite the pedigree of producer Jerry Bruckheimer and director Jon Turteltaub, who worked together on the hit "National Treasure" films.
"Obviously, we're disappointed for our filmmakers," said Disney distribution President Chuck Viane. "Nobody wanted a result like this."
Unless "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" is a huge success overseas, it's destined to be a major money loser for Disney. In its first major foreign opening, the film started with a good but not great $4.8 million in Russia.
"Apprentice" was greenlighted by Disney's prior executive regime under former Chairman Dick Cook and production President Oren Aviv. However, it was the first advertising campaign overseen by the studio's new marketing President M.T. Carney, a movie-business outsider hired in April.