Jason Momoa stars as Conan with Rachel Nichols as Tamara in "Conan… (Guy Rolan / Lionsgate )
Claiming the No. 1 spot at the box office this weekend was an easy job for "The Help." But for four new films, attracting moviegoers was a tougher chore.
"The Help" continued its strong box office run, adding an impressive $20.5 million to its domestic tally this weekend, according to an estimate from distributor Walt Disney Studios. The film set in 1960s Mississippi benefited from positive word-of-mouth, with ticket sales dropping a scant 21%, bringing the movie's total to $71.8 million after 12 days in theaters. The film is doing so well that Disney is planning to expand it into a handful of additional theaters next weekend.
But the success of "The Help" was pretty much the only uplifting story at the box office, as a new action movie, a family film, a horror flick and a romantic drama all did poor business this weekend. The four debuts were outgrossed not only by "The Help" but also by holdover "Rise of the Planet of the Apes," which has been in theaters for three weekends. The film about raucous simians that attempt to overtake the Earth drummed up an additional $16.3 million, raising its tally to a strong $133.8 million.
Perhaps the biggest disappointment of the weekend was the performance of "Conan the Barbarian," a reworking of the 1982 film starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, which pre-release audience surveys indicated had a shot at claiming the No. 1 spot this weekend. The film was expected to gross $15 million at least but instead came in with only $10 million.
Instead, the new film that had the strongest debut was "Spy Kids: All the Time in the World in 4D," the latest installment in the kid-friendly franchise directed by Robert Rodriguez. The movie, released in 3-D and so-called 4-D — which offers viewers a chance to smell certain scenes in the picture — collected a soft $12 million. Meanwhile, "Fright Night," also a remake of an '80s film, scared up only a weak $8.3 million — and that figure included receipts from Thursday evening, when the 3-D film opened early in 1,700 locations nationwide. Trailing behind was "One Day," an adaptation of David Nicholls' bestselling novel, which was released in about 1,000 fewer theaters than the other new films and sold a so-so $5.1 million worth of tickets.
Lionsgate had high hopes for "Conan," which stars "Game of Thrones" actor Jason Momoa as the sword-wielding barbarian. First created by author Robert E. Howard in the 1930s, Conan has long resonated with a male audience. But that fan base apparently wasn't as eager to see the latest incarnation of the brute, who has also appeared in Marvel comic books and a Saturday morning cartoon program.
"We're disappointed with the results, but I think box office in general was down this weekend," said David Spitz, executive vice president of distribution. "I was at a theater in Century City — normally, during the summer, you can't even walk through the lobby there — and it was like a ghost town."
While ticket sales were indeed down 3% this weekend as compared to the same period in 2010, Spitz acknowledged that Lionsgate didn't "buy into the idea that this time of year should be labeled as the dog days of summer. We've had great success in the past in August with 'The Last Exorcism' and 'The Expendables.'"
Still, it remains to be seen how well "Conan" will fare in coming weeks. Those who saw the movie this weekend — a 62% male crowd — didn't like it that much, assigning it an average grade of B-, according to market research firm CinemaScore. The film was financed by Nu Image for about $90 million and later acquired by Lionsgate, which paid $25 million for distribution rights in North America and the United Kingdom.
Even though the fourth "Spy Kids" film finished ahead of "Conan," Dimension Films — the Weinstein Co.-owned label distributing the film — was hoping the film's weekend gross would be at least in the midteens. The film, produced for about $27 million, opened to substantially less than the third movie in the series about kids on an undercover adventure, "Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over," which debuted to $33.4 million in 2003 and ultimately grossed $197 million worldwide. Those who saw the fourth "Spy Kids" film this weekend gave it an average grade of B+.
As for "Fright Night," to build buzz before the weekend, distributor Disney released it Thursday at 9 p.m., a few hours before the weekend officially began. But those screenings, which were offered in only 3-D, did not generate much in ticket sales — only about $200,000, according to the studio.
The new version of the 1985 film about a vampire out to kill his teenage neighbor was produced by DreamWorks SKG for about $30 million. While it earned the best reviews of any new film released this weekend, those who saw the movie — a 60% male crowd — gave it an average grade of only B-.
Asked whether the lackluster results for "Conan" and "Fright Night" were indicative of a larger audience backlash against remakes, the studio's executive vice president of distribution, Dave Hollis, said: "I've thought of it. But I think that whether they're derivative properties or not, you just need to make a good movie.
"I think the industry is all having that same struggle with 'How do you crack the nut against this younger adult audience?'"
Meanwhile, "One Day," which received overwhelmingly negative critical reviews, was also assigned a weak average grade of B- by the mostly older female crowd that saw it. The movie, which stars Anne Hathaway and Jim Sturgess as a couple in an up-and-down romantic relationship, was produced by Focus Features and Random House Films for about $15 million.