An adult drama with overwhelmingly negative word of mouth sounds like a surefire box-office disaster in modern Hollywood, but George Clooney defied the odds this weekend.
Despite exit polls that indicated it was the most disliked movie released so far in 2010, Clooney's "The American" opened No. 1 at the box office this weekend, collecting an estimated $16.4 million in the U.S. and Canada from Friday through the Monday holiday and $19.5 million since it opened Wednesday.
The low-budget action film "Machete" from director Robert Rodriguez opened to a strong $14 million, primarily from Latino audiences. But the Drew Barrymore-Justin Long romantic comedy "Going the Distance" barely got off the runway with a soft $8.6 million.
Though those are not particularly high grosses for opening weekends, they're right in line for Labor Day, when movies are not at the top of many people's agendas. Total ticket sales over the four days were $125 million, according to Hollywood.com, virtually even with last year.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday, September 08, 2010 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 1 inches; 40 words Type of Material: Correction
Box office: An article in Monday's Calendar section about Labor Day weekend box-office results and "The American" stated that Focus Features paid $20 million for distribution rights for that film. In fact, Focus spent $20 million to make "The American."
"The American" got an average grade of D- from those who saw it, according to market research firm CinemaScore, the lowest for any new film since last year. Adults over 25, who made up 88% of the audience, gave the slow and meditative picture an F.
But despite the fact that buzz has appeared to spread faster in recent years due to such technology as text messaging and Twitter, audiences came consistently during the opening six days for the film, in which Clooney plays an assassin working in a small Italian town.
Distributor Focus Features' decision to promote the movie's sparse action in advertisements and to open it in a large number of theaters nationwide, instead of starting in a few cities and then expanding it as the specialty film label often does, gave "The American" a strong commercial start.
"The box office was an 'A,' " said Jack Foley, Focus' domestic distribution president, when asked about the CinemaScore. "We released it at the optimal time for an adult drama and benefited from a star with a tremendous following."
A number of dramas aimed at adults have flopped at the box office in the last year and a half, leading many in Hollywood to believe the genre is better left to TV. But "The American" showed that dramas can succeed when made at a low price -- Focus paid $20 million for distribution rights. The film also appears to have benefited from opening at summer's end, when audiences have been bombarded for months with special-effects-laden pictures aimed at younger audiences.
Ticket sales for "The American" on the standard three-day weekend were $13.1 million, right in line with other offbeat Clooney pictures that got mixed reviews, such as last year's "The Men Who Stare at Goats" and 2008's "Leatherheads," which both opened to $12.7 million. Those pictures went on to gross $32.4 million and $31.4 million, respectively.
With $19.5 million in the bank, "The American" seems well positioned to exceed them. The question now is whether its head start from opening on a Wednesday and playing through Labor Day will make up for what could be a sizable second weekend drop from poor word of mouth.
"Machete," which stars action veteran Danny Trejo as an ex-federale who combats immigrant-bashing villains, benefited from a marketing campaign primarily aimed at Latino audiences, who made up 60% of its crowds. The movie performed particularly well in cities with large Latino populations, including Houston, Phoenix, San Antonio, San Diego and Los Angeles. L.A. was its No. 1 market in the country.
"I think it's a cultural marketing success," said Chris Aronson, 20th Century Fox's executive vice president of distribution.
Fox paid $8 million for domestic distribution rights to "Machete," making it a solid performer for the studio.
The same can't be said for "Going the Distance," which cost Warner Bros. label New Line Cinema $32 million to produce. Despite media attention on its stars' off-screen romance, not enough of the film's target audience turned out.
"We're disappointed, but hopeful it will do well in the coming weeks with the prime older female audience," said Jeff Goldstein, Warner Bros.' executive vice president of distribution.
Older women are generally more likely than other groups to wait until after a film's opening weekend to see it.
Of last weekend's two new pictures, the thriller "Takers" declined a relatively modest 47% and collected $13.5 million over the four-day weekend, while horror film "The Last Exorcism" plummeted 64%, typical for the genre, and brought in $8.8 million.
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*--* Estimated sales in the U.S. and Canada: *--*
*--* Movie 4-day Percentage Total Days in (Studio) gross change from (millions) release (millions) last wkd (3-day basis) 1 The American (Focus Features) $16.4 NA $19.5 6
2 Machete (Fox/Troublemaker) $14 NA $14 4
3 Takers (Sony Screen Gems) $13.5 -47% $40 11
4 The Last Exorcism $8.8 -64% $33.6 11 (Lionsgate/Strike)