It's usually not clear whether an animated movie will be a hit until parents start taking children to matinees on Saturday afternoon.
For "Toy Story 3," it was apparent when the sun rose Friday morning, after Pixar's second-ever sequel had already garnered nearly $4 million from midnight screenings. Such late-night shows are usually popular only for series with hard-core young adult fans such as "Twilight" and " Harry Potter."
"It was almost like having a fanboy movie," said Walt Disney Studios distribution president Chuck Viane.
By Sunday, the 3-D "Toy Story 3" had grossed a stellar studio-estimated $109 million in the U.S. and Canada — not quite as high as the $122-million opening of "Shrek the Third" in 2007, but easily the best ever for Pixar, even accounting for ticket-price inflation.
The weekend's only other new movie in wide release, the western comic-book adaptation "Jonah Hex," played to theaters full of tumbleweeds, opening to a terrible $5.1 million.
The early midnight numbers for "Toy Story 3" kicked off a $41-million Friday for the film, the highest ever opening day for an animated movie and a clear sign that the follow-up to Pixar's first feature in 1995 was appealing to adults nostalgic for Woody, Buzz Lightyear and the gang just as much as children seeing them for the first time.
On Saturday, however, "Toy Story 3" lost a bit of steam, as ticket sales declined 10% — or stayed even not counting Thursday's midnight shows. Most animated movies, including all of Pixar's except for " Wall-E," have seen a jump on their second day in theaters thanks to families hitting matinees.
That's a sign that ticket sales for "Toy Story 3" may be more front-loaded than past Pixar movies, which have typically experienced long box-office runs and ultimately grossed more than four times their opening weekend on average. However, given audience familiarity with the characters, it's common for sequels to generate a higher percentage of their receipts on the first weekend than original movies. Pixar hasn't released a sequel since 1999's "Toy Story 2," though it has two more coming in the next two years.
"Toy Story 3" faces an additional challenge in that it will lose many of its 3-D theaters, which have accounted for about 60% of the movie's opening-weekend gross, in two weeks when "The Last Airbender" opens in 3-D — and even more theaters the week after that, when the 3-D animated "Despicable Me" debuts.
However, all indications are that word-of-mouth, usually the most important driver of a movie's box-office longevity, is fantastic. The average audience grade was A, according to the market research firm CinemaScore, and reviews were uniformly positive. Studies of Twitter traffic conducted by Disney indicated that enthusiasm among some fans was so high that they had already seen "Toy Story 3" twice.
"I believe this will ultimately not only be the highest opening for a Pixar film but the highest total gross," said Viane.
Indeed, "Toy Story 3" will almost certainly beat the $340-million domestic ticket sales record for Pixar set by "Finding Nemo" in 2003, continuing the Disney-owned animation studio's unblemished record of 11 successes in a row.
If it holds as well as past Pixar pictures, however, it could end up with the highest-ever domestic gross for an animated movie, not accounting for ticket-price inflation, besting the $441 million collected by "Shrek 2" in 2004.
Overseas, "Toy Story 3" opened in 15 countries that Disney said represented about 25% of its foreign potential and grossed a solid $44.8 million, with particularly strong showings in Latin America and China. Past Pixar movies have done as much or more business internationally as in the U.S. and "Toy Story 3" will probably continue that trend.
The launch of "Jonah Hex" was the second worst of any movie this year, ahead of only the "Saturday Night Live" comedy "MacGruber." But "Jonah," which stars Josh Brolin and Megan Fox, wasn't an inexpensive comedy, as Warner Bros. and Legendary Pictures spent a sizable if not huge $47 million on production, including extensive reshoots that apparently did little to increase the film's appeal. Those who saw "Jonah Hex" gave it a weak average grade of C+.
It was a very healthy movie-going weekend outside of "Jonah Hex," because last weekend's two new movies, "The A-Team" and "The Karate Kid," both dropped less than 50% despite the competition from "Toy Story 3."
Total receipts rose 31% from the same weekend last year, according to Hollywood.com, bringing summer 2010 revenue up to even with 2009, though attendance is down 6%.