The ensemble cast of "The Help." (Dale Robinette / DreamWorks )
"The Help" didn't have to work hard to maintain its box office dominance over Labor Day, effortlessly claiming the No. 1 spot for the third weekend in a row.
The adaptation of Kathryn Stockett's novel of pre-civil rights Mississippi has been cleaning up at the multiplex ever since its premiere almost four weeks ago, when it opened behind "Rise of the Planet of the Apes." In an unlikely feat, solid word-of-mouth has since propelled the film to the top spot at the box office every weekend since.
The film sold $19-million worth of tickets domestically over the four-day weekend, according to an estimate from distributor Walt Disney Studios. The picture, which stars an ensemble cast featuring Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer and Emma Stone, has now accumulated $123.4 million after 27 days in release.
Labor Day weekend is traditionally one of the slowest of the year for the movie business, and 2011 was no exception. Ticket sales were up a slight 5% compared with the same period last year, but three new films still failed to muster impressive results. "The Debt," a Holocaust action drama, had a better-than-expected opening, grossing $12.6 million during the long weekend. The horror film "Apollo 18" took in $10.7 million — falling short of industry projections that it would win the weekend with about $15 million. Meanwhile, the thriller "Shark Night 3D," which had the benefit of 3-D ticket surcharges, scared up a modest $10.3 million.
"The Debt," which received the best reviews by far of any film opening over the weekend, was also the premiere most-liked by audiences. Those who saw the film starring Helen Mirren and Jessica Chastain — 70% of whom were at least 40 years old — gave it an average grade of B, according to market research firm CinemaScore.
Jack Foley, president of domestic distribution for Focus Features — which released "The Debt" — said the studio's adult-centric films have often performed well over Labor Day. (Last year, Focus released the George Clooney action film "The American" during the holiday weekend, and it took the No. 1 spot with $16.7 million.)
"Most people say this is a discard weekend where you put slasher or action films," Foley said. "But this is a great moviegoing weekend for adults. This age group is sitting around all weekend with nothing to do — they're empty nesters, or their kids are back in school or off to college — so they go to the movies."
Focus released "The Debt" — a remake of a small 2007 Israeli picture, "Ha-Hov" — on Wednesday in an attempt to generate positive buzz about the film before the weekend. The move seemed to pay off. Audience surveys indicated the film would collect only about $7 million this weekend, but after five days in theaters, its total stands at $14.5 million.
"The Debt" was completed two years ago, but had its release date moved numerous times because the film was made by Miramax. In 2009, the specialty division — then owned by the Walt Disney Co. — was shut down, and the film was without distribution until Focus later acquired its U.S. rights. Universal Pictures is releasing the movie abroad, where it has so far grossed $2 million in three countries.
"Apollo 18" is the latest movie this year from Weinstein Co.'s Dimension Films label to underperform — after "Spy Kids: All the Time in the World in 4D" and "Scream 4."
The sci-fi-horror film, which purports to show "found footage" from a U.S. space mission, has no major stars and its mysterious marketing campaign revealed little about the film's story. The movie received a dismal average grade of D from moviegoers, indicating they may have expected something quite different from what they got. Those who saw the movie were 57% male, and 56% were under age 25.
Erik Lomis, president of theatrical distribution and home entertainment for the Weinstein Co., said the poor grade could be due to the surveying methods of CinemaScore.
"We played much better in the middle of the country and the Southwest than we did in the East, so maybe it was where they did their CinemaScore polling," he surmised. "But we're OK with this number. It's not an expensive movie and we had a highly targeted marketing campaign."
Like "Apollo 18," "Shark Night 3D" was not screened in advance for critics — usually a sign that a studio is nervous about its reception. Indeed, those who saw the film about a shark that targets vacationers were hardly enamored of it — giving it an average grade of C. The movie appealed slightly more to women — accounting for 52% of the audience — while 57% were younger than 25.
The film, produced for about $25 million by Incentive Filmed Entertainment and Sierra/Affinity, was released by Relativity Media, which is covering the picture's marketing and distribution expenses.