Brad Pitt stars in "Moneyball." (Melinda Sue Gordon / Columbia…)
Brad Pitt may be Hollywood royalty, but even he couldn't take down the king of the jungle at the box office.
For the second consecutive weekend, a 3-D version of 1994's "The Lion King" sold more tickets than any other film in theaters, including the baseball drama "Moneyball," starring Pitt. Ticket sales for the re-release dropped only 27% to $22.1 million, bringing the movie's domestic tally to $61.7 million, according to an estimate from distributor Walt Disney Pictures.
"Moneyball" still had a good weekend, debuting with a respectable $20.6 million. The well-reviewed film just barely edged out the family film "Dolphin Tale," an inspirational story in 3-D about an injured sea creature that collected a solid $20.3 million.
"Abduction," starring "Twilight" heartthrob Taylor Lautner in his first leading role outside the teen franchise, brought in a so-so $11.2 million. And "Killer Elite," an action film featuring Robert De Niro and Jason Statham, started with a soft $9.5 million.
Executives both at Disney and rival studios said they were surprised by the continued strength of "The Lion King."
"I was really kind of amazed at how the 'The Lion King' performed," admitted Dan Fellman, president of domestic distribution for Warner Bros., which released "Dolphin Tale." "Considering that the 3-D version is going out on Blu-ray so soon, many of us expected it to have more of a drop and hoped that some of that money would have fallen into our pockets."
Indeed, the new version of "The Lion King" was initially slated to play in theaters for only two weeks to drum up support for its Oct. 4 Blu-ray release. But Dave Hollis, Disney's executive vice president of distribution, said the film will continue to play in theaters for an extended run.
"At this point, with a number that's this big, exhibition and consumers have their hands in the air about wanting to see the movie, and we're going to try to meet the demand," he said.
Meanwhile, audiences also responded positively to "Moneyball," in which Pitt stars as Billy Beane, the general manager of the Oakland A's who uses a new statistical approach when putting together his team. The actor's performance is already being buzzed about by awards pundits, and those who saw the film also seemed to like it, giving the movie an average grade of A, according to market research firm CinemaScore. Executives at Sony, which produced the picture for a little more than $50 million, are hopeful the strong score means the film will gross four to five times what it made this weekend by the end of its run in theaters.
The movie, based on Michael Lewis' bestselling nonfiction book, appealed equally to men and women, though its audience was largely older — 64% of the crowd was older than 35.
"Dolphin Tale," based on the true story of a mammal that lost its tail in a crab trap, was produced for about $37 million by Alcon Entertainment. At that cost, the movie's financial backers are likely to end up in good shape because word of mouth about the picture is expected to be excellent.
Moviegoers who saw "Dolphin Tale" gave it on average a grade of A+, making it the third film this year — along with "Soul Surfer" and "The Help" — to earn such a score. Much like "Soul Surfer," about a girl whose arm was bitten off by a shark, "Dolphin Tale" was marketed to a faith-based audience.
The inspirational drama starring Harry Connick Jr. and Morgan Freeman performed solidly in "home-schooling areas and the Bible Belt," said Fellman. "It played like 'The Blind Side,'" he said, referring to the uplifting 2009 Sandra Bullock drama that also resonated with religious audiences. Theaters in Miami and Baltimore screening "Dolphin Tale" saw ticket sales for the picture jump about 180% from Friday to Saturday, Fellman noted. Roughly 50% of those who saw the film opted to purchase a pricier 3-D ticket to do so, a slightly higher-than-average percentage for a family film.
Lionsgate spent about $35 million to produce "Abduction," Lautner's bid to become a serious action star. Not surprisingly, the film did best with the teen star's key demographic — young women and girls. Of those who saw the movie, 68% were female and 56% of the crowd was under 25.
Critics hated "Abduction": As of Sunday morning, the movie had received a dismal 3% fresh rating on the Rotten Tomatoes website. Fans weren't enamored with the film either, giving it an average grade of B-. Still, ticket sales jumped 21% from Friday to Saturday, indicating that the movie is not being hurt by bad buzz.
Moviegoers who saw "Killer Elite" — mostly older males — gave the film a grade of B. The picture was the first released by Open Road Films, a joint venture of theater operators Regal Entertainment and AMC Entertainment. The movie was financed by Australia's Omnilab Media for about $70 million. Open Road got U.S. distribution rights in exchange for agreeing to spend a minimum amount — around $20 million — on marketing, and then splitting ticket sales revenue with Omnilab.