Bradley Cooper stars in "Limitless." (John Baer, Relativity Media )
In a box office face-off this weekend between two well-coiffed heartthrobs, Bradley Cooper was deemed a more desirable leading man than Matthew McConaughey.
Cooper, who has been best known for his supporting role in "The Hangover," proved he can open a movie without the help of goofy sidekicks, a tiger or Mike Tyson. His psychological thriller "Limitless" was the No. 1 pick by moviegoers, grossing a solid $19 million, according to an estimate from distributor Relativity Media.
McConaughey's "The Lincoln Lawyer," in which he plays an attorney who runs his practice from the back of his car, collected a moderate $13.4 million. That was barely enough to beat the weekend's other new release, the sci-fi comedy "Paul," which debuted to $13.2 million. But both of those films couldn't withstand the competition from movies already in theaters. "Rango," Paramount's computer-animated family film featuring the voice of Johnny Depp, dropped only 32%, grossing $15.3 million on its third weekend in release. "Battle: Los Angeles," the Sony action film that ruled the box office last weekend, fell 59%, adding $14.6 million to its $60.6-million domestic total.
Despite the range of options, the box office continued its slump. Weekend receipts were off about 10%, compared to the same three-day period last year, and overall attendance is down roughly 21%, according to Hollywood.com.
"Limitless" is the fifth wide release from Relativity since it began distributing its own movies last summer and marks the highest opening of any of the company's films. Earlier this month, the '80s romp "Take Me Home Tonight" opened to a disappointing $3.5 million after the weak January start of "Season of the Witch," a film starring Nicolas Cage, which debuted at $10.6 million.
"This opening shows that Relativity, which is fairly new to marketing and distributing its own movies, can compete in the challenging marketplace," said Kyle Davies, Relativity's president of theatrical distribution. "To be No. 1 in the third month of the year, we're happy."
The film about a man who experiments with a mind-enhancing pill cost about $27 million to produce, meaning it should be a good financial performer for Relativity. Most of the moviegoers who went to see "Limitless" were 25 and older, and the film attracted both genders in nearly equal measure. Audiences who saw the film seemed to like it, giving it an average grade of B-plus, according to market research firm CinemaScore.
Of all the new releases this weekend, audiences most enjoyed the positively reviewed "Lawyer," giving it an average grade of A-minus. The film's box office receipts were largely fueled by an older audience, 85% of which was older than 25. Having both strong word of mouth and an older demographic could bode well for the film in the coming weeks, since younger moviegoers are the ones who typically rush out to see a movie on its opening weekend.
The movie, which cost about $40 million to produce, was primarily financed by Lakeshore Entertainment with a minority investment by Lionsgate.
"The Lincoln Lawyer's" box-office total was slightly bolstered by a special deal — the first of its kind — with the discount e-mail service Groupon, which for 48 hours last week offered tickets to the film for $6 a pop. A total of 190,000 tickets were sold through the promotion, according to a person familiar with the sale, and about 40,000 people used the discount through Saturday night.
The film's box-office tally this weekend is based on the regular full price of tickets. Distributor Lionsgate compensated theaters for the difference between the $6 discount and the full ticket price.
David Spitz, Lionsgate's executive vice president of distribution, said exit polls showed that 89% of the audiences used Groupon tickets would otherwise not have intended to see "The Lincoln Lawyer."
"Groupon led them to the theaters, and now the key is that we've got a nice response with a good CinemaScore," Spitz said. "We're always looking for innovative and efficient ways to get our message out, and Groupon clearly fit that criteria."
"Paul," which centers on two men who encounter a comical extraterrestrial, was cofinanced by Relativity and distributor Universal Pictures for about $40 million. The movie, the latest comedy from British "Shaun of the Dead" costars Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, also received a grade of B-plus from audiences. Those who went to see the sci-fi flick were mostly men.
The film's opening far exceeded the $5.8-million debut of 2007's "Hot Fuzz," which featured Pegg and Frost and which Pegg cowrote. That comedy went on to gross $23.6 million domestically.
Universal is counting on "Paul" bringing in more money from overseas than the U.S. and Canada. It opened internationally in mid-February and added $1.3 million to its healthy foreign total this weekend, which now stands at $28.1 million from five foreign markets.