Michelle Rodriguez in the movie "Battle: Los Angeles." (Richard Cartwright, Columbia…)
"Battle: Los Angeles," an action film filled with chaos and destruction, bombed the competition at the box office this weekend, leaving "Mars Needs Moms" in need of a rescue mission.
"Mars Needs Moms," a performance-capture film that cost Walt Disney Studios around $150 million to produce, grossed only a studio-estimated $6.8 million, making it the lowest opening ever for a 3-D animated film debuting in more than 2,000 theaters. The family film was annihilated by the $36-million haul of "Battle: Los Angeles," which centers on a Marine unit's struggle against aliens invading the city. "Mars" also fell behind the weekend's other new release, a gothic retelling of "Red Riding Hood," which opened to a so-so $14.1 million.
A largely male contingent went to see "Battle," and while young men loved the movie, general audiences gave it an average grade of B, according to market research firm CinemaScore.
Rory Bruer, Sony Pictures' distribution president, attributed some of the film's success to its ability to attract minority audiences with an ethnically diverse cast that includes Latina actress Michelle Rodriguez and African American singer Ne-Yo.
"From everything we've seen, it was certainly resonating very strongly with Hispanic and African American audiences. The diversity of the cast was perfect, and they were all over the media to make this work," he said, adding that star Aaron Eckhart also traveled to armed-services bases to screen the film for troops.
"Battle" was co-financed by Sony and Relativity Media for about $75 million, according to two people close to the production, although a Sony spokesperson said tax incentives brought that figure down to $70 million.
Overseas, where the movie is titled "World Invasion: Battle: Los Angeles" in some countries to broaden its appeal, Sony also saw good results. It opened to $16.7 million in 33 foreign markets. It was the No. 1 film in Russia, where it grossed $4.6 million, and also took the top spot in South Korea, the United Kingdom and India.
Conversely, "Mars Needs Moms" grossed only $2.1 million in the 14 foreign markets in which it opened. Traditionally, animated family films have been one of the most successful genres for Hollywood both overseas and in the U.S. In 2010, the highest-grossing film worldwide was "Toy Story 3," and four other animated films made it into last year's top 10, including "Shrek Forever After" and "Tangled." Many studios are already banking on the success of their animated tent poles out this summer, like DreamWorks Animation's "Kung Fu Panda 2" and Disney's "Cars 2."
For "Mars Needs Moms" to fare so poorly — especially given that 3-D receipts boosted its grosses — makes it a blight on the record of a studio known for its repeated success with animated films. It also shows that no matter how seemingly reliable the animated genre is, the formula doesn't always hold up.
Still, it's unclear what went wrong with "Mars Needs Moms," which, on the surface, seems to have no glaring problems. Audiences who saw the movie enjoyed it as much as "Battle," also giving the film a B. Not surprisingly, the movie played best with families, who were 88% of the audience, and 68% of its business came from 3-D receipts.
Some in the industry suggested that the maternal overtones of the film's title turned off adolescents, or that the performance-capture technology used to animate the characters gave the movie an unfamiliar look. (The technology, in which live actors' facial and body movements are mapped onto animated characters, has been seen before, however, in successful family films like "The Polar Express.")
Chuck Viane, president of distribution for Walt Disney Studios, shrugged off both of those suggestions.
"Honestly, I've never seen a movie — possibly with the exception of 'The Shawshank Redemption' — where the title made a difference," he said. "We're as perplexed as anyone as to what the circumstances were, and we're all disappointed because our filmmakers worked hard and put in a couple of years of their life to make an exceptionally well-made 3-D movie."
The moderate debut for "Red Riding Hood" came from its largely female audience, 56% of whom were younger than 24. The movie, which stars Amanda Seyfried as a strong-willed teenager in a love triangle and was directed by Catherine Hardwicke, cost Warner Bros. $42 million. Though the movie is off to an OK start, it won't come close to replicating the success of Hardwicke's 2008 "Twilight." Despite poor reviews, audiences didn't hate the film, giving it an average grade of B-minus.
Last weekend's No. 1 film, Paramount's computer-animated "Rango," held up well. After opening to a decent $38.1 million, the film dropped only 39%, grossing $23.1 million for a strong second-place finish this weekend. It was unclear whether moviegoers would continue to turn up to see "Rango" after initial audiences gave it the weak average grade of C-plus. But it appears the movie, which stars Johnny Depp as the voice of a chameleon, will have a healthy box-office life.