There were the usual number of winners and losers at the box office, but the dominant theme in the marketplace this weekend was underperformance. In a haunting mirror of Michigan's lackluster output against Iowa yesterday (or, for that matter, of my box office prognostications over the past few weeks), several releases did well enough to win but failed to live up to much greater potential.
First among them was the magic movie The Prestige, which finished at No. 1, but earned just $14.8 mil. That's the most sluggish gross for a weekend champ since Gridiron Gang made $14.4 mil more than a month ago, and it meant a middling $6,496 per-theater average. Star Hugh Jackman hasn't had such a weak wide opener since Kate and Leopold made $9.7 mil five years ago, and director Christopher Nolan has basically never had such a shabby debut.
But they weren't alone. Flags of Our Fathers planted its staff at No. 3, with just $10.2 mil. The smarties over at Variety deemed its $5,437 average ''healthy,'' though I wouldn't be so quick to commend Clint Eastwood & Co. on a battle well fought. For one thing, a $5,437 average simply isn't ''healthy.'' It just isn't. It's mediocre. For another, the WWII drama's audience demographics were way out of whack from what studios like to see. According to CinemaScore, FOOF's crowd was fully two-thirds male and get this a whopping 85 percent over the age of 25. Yes, older viewers don't feel the urge to see a movie on opening weekend, so there's still a chance that FOOF will sprout some legs. But it's a fair bet that the film will have to become a serious Oscar contender if it's going to match the $90 mil-plus takes of Eastwood's last two directorial outings, Mystic River and Million Dollar Baby.
Continuing the trend, kids opted for fourth-week player Open Season (No. 4, with $8 mil) over the new live-action family flick Flicka, which wound up at No. 5 with just $7.7 mil. Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette (No. 8) earned a so-so $5.3 mil in 859 locations, a sort of word-of-mouth-dependant platform release that now looks shaky considering the movie's bad C-grade CinemaScore. Also stumbling was the well-reviewed Bobcat Goldthwait-directed bestiality dramedy (I kid you not) Sleeping Dogs Lie, from Roadside Attractions/Samuel Goldwyn, which averaged just $1,800 in six venues.
And yet yet! there were a handful of exceptions, which I can't ignore. Foremost among them was The Departed, which declined only 28 percent, finishing at No. 2 with $13.7 mil. The Scorsese drama's three-week take is $77.1 mil, and there's little evidence that it'll slow anytime soon: The $100 mil barrier is easily in its reach, and I wouldn't be surprised if at this rate it flirts with $150 mil. Disney's 3-D version of Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas (No. 12) averaged a truly healthy $19,536 in 168 locations, and Sony's literary adaptation Running With Scissors earned a super-strong $225,000 in eight theaters.
Overall, Paul at Exhibitor Relations put down his soft tacos and wiped his fingers and mouth to give a mixed report. The cumulative gross of all films tracking this weekend was up nearly 20 percent over the same period last year (thanks largely to the fact that the same period last year was quite weak), but the cumulative gross of this weekend's top 12 movies was down more than 10 percent. And, mind you, this was all in the same week that the U.S. Census Bureau announced the addition of the 300 millionth American movie fan. As I've been saying: Unrealized potential.
Which brings us to one last ironically timely bit of news. It just so happens that when all of this weekend's receipts are added up, Warner Bros.' Superman Returns (remember that underperforming little blockbuster-that-couldn't?) finally, barely, feebly will have inched its way past the $200 mil domestic mark, bruised and battered, limping with a cane fashioned of kryptonite and spoiled dreams.