The king of the box office was no match for a teen soap opera queen bee this weekend.
The 3-D underwater adventure "Sanctum," which was executive produced and heavily promoted by "Avatar" director James Cameron, opened to $9.2 million, according to an estimate from distributor Universal Pictures. That was well short of the weekend's other new film, "The Roommate," a thriller starring Leighton Meester from the TV show "Gossip Girl." It debuted to a better but not great $15.6 million.
Studio executives didn't have high expectations for the weekend, since many Americans were glued to their television sets for Super Bowl Sunday. Nonetheless, theaters were particularly empty this big-game weekend, with total ticket sales down 25% from Super Bowl weekend in 2010, according to Hollywood.com. In addition to the football championship, cold weather and snowstorms in parts of the country also hurt grosses.
Sony Screen Gems, which released "The Roommate," has several times in the last decade opened movies targeting female audiences as counterprogramming against the biggest football game of the year.
"It's worked for us over the years to target a female audience on Super Bowl weekend. That is your sweet spot," said Rory Bruer, president of distribution for Sony Pictures.
As with most releases from the Screen Gems label, the film didn't cost much to make, with a production budget of only $16 million. Word of mouth on the film was mixed, with audiences giving it an average grade of B-, according to market-research firm CinemaScore. Horror films historically tend to die off quickly at the box office after their premiere, meaning Sony's ultimate financial prospects on "The Roommate" are uncertain.
However, the debut was relatively good news for Screen Gems, Sony Pictures' genre label, which is coming off weak box office performances for its last two releases, "Country Strong" (in which Meester had a supporting role) and "Burlesque."
With its cast of Australians unknown to most Americans, "Sanctum" relied largely on the star power of Cameron, who even started a Twitter account to promote the movie. But the director of the highest-grossing film of all time couldn't attract big crowds to the movie, which in part was struggling against misperceptions that it was a documentary.
In a bit of good news for Universal, most of those who did see "Sanctum" shelled out a bit extra to watch it in three dimensions: Theaters showing the movie in 3-D made up 84% of ticket sales, and the film was particularly popular on IMAX — those screens represented 6% of the locations playing "Sanctum" but made up 17% of its receipts. Without the benefit of surcharges on 3-D tickets, "Sanctum" would have plumbed deeper depths on the box office chart.
While prerelease surveys had shown that men were the most interested in seeing "Sanctum," exit polls revealed that audiences tilted slightly female.
"I'm happy, because there's a very emotional aspect to the movie that women reacted well to," said Nikki Rocco, president of domestic distribution for Universal. However, many who saw the film appeared to not like it, as moviegoers assigned it a CinemaScore of C+.
"Sanctum" likely won't be a big money loser, because Universal and its partner Relativity Media spent only $12 million to acquire the film's distribution rights in the U.S. and several foreign countries.
The movie opened simultaneously in Britain, where it placed No. 5 with an unimpressive $1.5 million, and in Australia, where it debuted to a stronger $1.6 million, good enough for second place in the less populous country.
Neither of the movies that opened last weekend showed much staying power. The Anthony Hopkins horror film "The Rite" dropped 62% to $5.6 million, and the Jason Statham action flick "The Mechanic" fell 53% to $5.4 million.
"The King's Speech," which garnered 12 Oscar nominations, continued to reign among awards contenders. On its second weekend in wide release, the film dropped only 25% from the prior weekend and grossed $8.3 million. "True Grit" was down 37% to $4.8 million and "Black Swan" dropped 34% to $3.4 million.