Fernanda Andrade in "The Devil Inside." (Paramount )
After last year's frightening box office results, 2012 began on a more positive note with the surprise success of a low-budget horror flick.
"The Devil Inside" far exceeded industry expectations upon its debut this weekend, collecting $34.5 million, according to an estimate from distributor Paramount Pictures. Heading into the weekend, pre-release audience surveys had indicated that the movie would gross no more than $15 million domestically. Instead, the movie — the only new release to hit theaters nationwide this weekend — easily unseated "Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol" from the No. 1 spot.
After two weekends in the top position, the fourth installment in the Tom Cruise action franchise came in second with $20.5 million. Since its release in mid-December, the movie has racked up a strong total of $170.2 million.
Because of the robust ticket sales, weekend receipts were up 29% compared with the same period in 2011. That was welcome news for the industry after year-end results revealed that ticket sales tumbled roughly 3% in 2011, while attendance fell to a 16-year low.
"The Devil Inside," about a woman filming a documentary about exorcisms and her mother's involvement in them, probably will end up being a financial winner for Paramount. The studio acquired the movie for only $1 million, not including marketing costs.
Lorenzo di Bonaventura, the film's executive producer, said the filmmaking team kept the movie's budget at $950,000 by shooting in Romania and having staff members take on multiple jobs. The team behind the movie initially tried to sell it through foreign sales agents but had difficult finding buyers. For a year it had no traction. Di Bonaventura heard about the movie and brought it to Paramount, where he has a producing deal.
The film was the second to be distributed through Paramount's Insurge label, the studio's outlet for "micro-budget" movies aimed at young audiences. The division was founded after the surprise success of the inexpensive horror flick "Paranormal Activity" in 2009. Its first release was last year's "Justin Bieber: Never Say Never," a music documentary about the tween star that cost around $13 million to make and ended up grossing $98 million worldwide.
Indeed, a young crowd propelled "The Devil Inside" to No. 1 this weekend, because 85% of the audience was younger than 35. But those who saw the critically loathed picture weren't pleased with the experience, assigning the movie an average grade of F, according to market research firm CinemaScore. While horror films often receive low CinemaScores, such a dismal grade is unprecedented. Not that bad word of mouth seemed to be substantially affecting ticket sales. From Friday to Saturday, receipts were down 27% — on par with the average slide for a scary flick.
"The movie is disturbing and therefore very polarizing. But the chatter online is evenly split between love and hate, and that's a lot better than people being apathetic about it because then there's a real conversation that keeps percolating," said Megan Colligan, Paramount's president of domestic marketing and distribution.
Of the high-profile movies that debuted around Christmas, "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" is holding up especially well. The David Fincher-directed film had the smallest decline in ticket sales this weekend of any movie in the top 10, falling 23% to $11.3 million for a total of $76.8 million. After a slow start, the film may be able to make up ground at the box office if it keeps playing well through the winter.
"Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows" is also holding up decently, with receipts declining 33% this weekend. The Robert Downey Jr. sequel collected $14.1 million, bringing its total to $157.4 million — still far from the original's ultimate sum of $209 million in 2009.