A young chimp named Caesar bonds with the ailing Charles (John Lithgow)… (WETA / 20th Century Fox )
"Rise of the Planet of the Apes" was the top banana this weekend, swinging past industry expectations to easily conquer the box office.
The prequel to the 1968 classic, which stars James Franco and a handful of digitalized simians, grossed a strong $54 million domestically, according to an estimate from distributor Twentieth Century Fox. Heading into the weekend, those who had seen prerelease audience surveys had projected that the film would collect around $35 million.
Unfortunately for Universal Pictures, the weekend's other new film in wide release, the R-rated comedy "The Change-Up," performed about as expected: pretty badly. The movie, about buddies played by Ryan Reynolds and Jason Bateman who accidentally trade lives and end up in the other's body, mustered a weak $13.5 million.
Both critics and audiences seemed to love "Apes." The big-budget film received surprisingly strong reviews, earning an 81% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and went over well with crowds this weekend. Those who saw the movie assigned it an average grade of A-, according to market research firm CinemaScore. (Men made up 54% of the audience.)
Ticket sales for the film dropped an astoundingly low 1% from Friday to Saturday, which Fox's vice president of distribution, Chris Aronson, said spoke to the movie's ultimate playability.
"A confluence of events made this film a success, starting with exceptional reviews that I think highlighted how groundbreaking this movie really is," said Aronson, referring to the film's use of motion-capture technology to create realistic-looking apes. "When movies do something that has never been seen before, audiences respond — and that fueled tremendous word-of-mouth for us."
The solid start for "Apes" is good news for Peter Chernin, the former president of Fox's parent company, News Corp. In 2009, the executive left his post as Rupert Murdoch's top lieutenant to launch his own entertainment company — and "Apes" is the first movie the new entity has produced. The film, which depicts how apes acquired the intelligence to take over Earth, was financed by Fox and partners Dune Capital Management and Ingenious Media for $93 million.
After the original series of five "Apes" films came to a close in 1973, Fox relaunched the brand again in 2001 with a Tim Burton-directed version of "Planet of the Apes." The movie was disliked by critics but did good business. A decade ago, the film had an even bigger opening weekend than the latest "Apes" movie, debuting to $68.5 million and ultimately grossing $362.2 million worldwide.
"Rise of the Planet of the Apes" also opened this weekend in 25 foreign markets, where it raked in a decent $23.4 million. Audiences in Spain responded most to the film, as it sold $5.2 million worth of tickets there.
Raunchfest "The Change-Up" is one of the few in its genre to stall at the box office this summer. Audiences have embraced R-rated comedies such as "Bad Teacher," "Bridesmaids" and "Horrible Bosses," all of which opened to about $10 million more than "The Change-Up." Those films were also less expensive to produce, because Universal and Relativity Media spent about $52 million to make the picture — a higher-than-average budget for a comedy.
While most critics seemed to loathe the movie, audiences didn't, giving it an average grade of B. Universal is hoping that score will fuel positive word-of-mouth in the coming weeks.
"Ryan and Jason are a hilarious pairing in this film, and R-rated comedies often have playability," said studio spokesperson Kori Bernards, adding that its film "Bridesmaids" earned a similar CinemaScore of B+. That film turned out to be a sleeper hit, grossing $256.3 million worldwide since its release in May.
About half the crowd that saw "The Change-Up" was under age 30, and 59% was female. Some of those young female moviegoers may have shown up to see one of the movie's attractive leading man, Reynolds, who has had a rough summer at the box office. The lackluster start marks the star's second disappointing opening in recent months — the first was his turn as a superhero in "Green Lantern." That movie, which cost about $200 million to produce and opened in June, has collected only a weak $154.6 million globally.