Hugh Jackman, left, and Dakota Goyo in the movie "Real Steel." (DreamWorks II, DreamWorks…)
Hugh Jackman kept George Clooney on the ropes this weekend, as "Real Steel" knocked out its competition in a box office brawl.
"Real Steel," set in a futuristic world where Jackman plays trainer to a boxing robot, easily claimed the No. 1 spot, raking in a decent $27.3-million worth of ticket sales domestically, according to an estimate from distributor Walt Disney Pictures. "The Ides of March," a political drama directed by and starring Clooney alongside Ryan Gosling, collected a lesser $10.4 million but was far less expensive a movie to produce.
For the first time in nearly a month, films just opening in theaters took the top spots at the box office over holdovers. In recent weeks, family films including a 3-D version of 1994's "The Lion King" and the uplifting drama "Dolphin Tale" — also in 3-D — have proved most appealing to moviegoers.
Though it's been marketed as a science-fiction action flick, "Real Steel" is largely about family as well, centering on a broken relationship between a father and son. About 25% of the audience that the film this weekend consisted of parents and their children, and the movie appealed mostly to men, who made up 66% of the crowd.
Based on the 1956 short story "Steel," which was later turned into an episode of the original "Twilight Zone" television series, "Real Steel" has earned only mediocre critical reviews. But moviegoers loved the picture, giving it an average grade of A, according to market research firm CinemaScore.
That's good news for DreamWorks SKG, which spent around $110 million to produce the film. The movie is being distributed worldwide by Disney. If the picture benefits from strong word-of-mouth in the U.S. and resonates with crowds abroad, its financial backers will likely end up in solid shape.
"There's a pretty open landscape in the coming weeks for a film that deals with such a broad audience," said Dave Hollis, Disney's executive vice president of distribution, referring to the lack of family films in the U.S. marketplace until the debut of "Puss in Boots" late this month. "But we're really making movies for the world business, and I think the film is going to be really big overseas."
The film opened this weekend in 19 foreign markets and grossed $22.1 million. The movie performed best in Russia, where it collected $6.9 million, and Jackman's native Australia, earning $5.4 million there.
"The Ides of March" costars Gosling as a ruthless young man working on behalf of a liberal presidential candidate, played by Clooney. The movie, adapted from Beau Willimon's off-Broadway play "Farragut North," was produced by Clooney and his partner Grant Heslov's company, Smokehouse Pictures. It is being distributed in North America by Sony Pictures and is the first movie to be released through a two-year deal between Smokehouse and the studio. It was financed by Cross Creek Pictures for about $12.5 million.
A largely older crowd bought tickets to the well-reviewed movie this weekend, with about 60% of the audience over age 35. Those who saw the film gave it an average grade of B, but Sony said Sunday morning that it was confident the picture would hold up well at the box office in coming weeks.
Rory Bruer, Sony's distribution president, said he was hopeful that the movie would follow in the footsteps of "Michael Clayton" and ultimately gross five times its opening weekend at the domestic box office. That 2007 drama, starring Clooney as a down-and-out attorney, opened to $10.4 million in wide release and ended up with $93 million worldwide.
Clooney may be considered an A-list star, but many of his films in recent years have not done blockbuster levels of business. That's largely because in the last decade the actor has opted to work on a number of modestly budgeted independent films, often beloved by critics but not always embraced by broad audiences.
Some of his passion projects have included the 2010 drama "The American," which collected a decent $67.9 million worldwide, and 2009's "Men Who Stare at Goats," which ended up with a similar $69 million globally. He produced both of those movies, which were each made for under $30 million. On the other hand, 2008's "Leatherheads" did not fare as well. The comedy about a football team in the 1920s, which Clooney directed and starred in, cost around $58 million to produce but brought in only $41.2 million in ticket sales worldwide.
"One thing you have to say about George Clooney is that he made a movie for a very reasonable budget that is going to be profitable. Plus, he's one of the most charming people in Hollywood — women love him and guys want to have a beer with him," said Bruer. "I do think this movie has its hurdles in terms of having politics as a background. But when you have such a compelling story, that transcends any uphill battle."