“Alice” gets its three-peat, but it’s an upset at #2 for a “Wimpy Kid”

If anyone out there still doubts that family films are the surest path to box office glory, this weekend should be a stark reminder of that fact. The ongoing 3-D premium ticket price-boosted power of “Alice in Wonderland” once again nailed the #1 spot for Disney, and a very healthy estimate of $34.5 million in its third week.

That’s not all. Against some theoretically stiff, star-driven competition, our #2 film turns out to be a lowish budget, live-action version of a series of young adult comic books with no spectacular effects and no superstars — though young Chloe Moretz of “Kick-Ass” might be one fairly shortly. “Diary of Wimpy Kid” nailed an estimated $21.8 million for Fox on the strength of what appears to be a lot of kid-friendly low comedy.

It was perhaps a slightly humiliating result for the film that was supposed to be the #2 film this weekend. As we discussed last time, “The Bounty Hunter” benefits from two big stars and a strong ad campaign. Still, it’s terrible reviews appear to have been an indication of something other than a bunch of effete, “irrelevant” snobs who don’t know how to have fun or something. It’s just possible that “regular people” aren’t enjoying it much more than critics did.

Nevertheless, the action-oriented rom-com did hit the low end of expectations with an estimated $21 million. That’s close enough that it’s not impossible that the “actuals” could actually change the rankings when they come out. My hunch, however, is that, if they’re different, they’ll be different in the disfavor of “Bounty Hunter.” In any case, they can’t undo the reality that “Wimpy Kid” has already made an amount exceeding its budget ($15 million according to Box Office Mojo; $19 million according to Nikki Finke). At $40 million, “The Bounty Hunter” is not an expensive movie by Hollywood standards, but it took the very expensive marketing equivalent of carpet bombing to not beat the arguably under-promoted family film for the #3 spot.

Jude Law and Forest Whitaker face the abyssStill, if “The Bounty Hunter” was stung, the oddly topical “Repo Men” got its internal organs ripped out with an extremely poor fourth place estimate of about $6.15 million.  It’s yet another fiscal setback for Universal despite an instantly understandable premise and lots of advertising and marketing. My hunch here is that the action audience is not as hungry for straight-up gore as the horror audience. Also, its marketing seems muddled in terms of whether it was trying to sell it as a straight-up science fiction action film despite an inherently satirical premise. “Repo Men” seems to have pleased fairly few in the process but, by the numbers, its reviews were more than twice as good as for “The Bounty Hunter” for what that’s worth.

This week’s box office winner in terms of per-screen averages is the comedy-drama from Noah Baumbach, “Greenberg.” Though only playing on three screens, the film managed a terrific $120,000 for Focus Features. It benefits from an unusually big star for a limited release in Ben Stiller, not to mention sexy/likable possible-superstar-to-be Greta Gerwig in the female lead, and a writer-director who is a known quantity to the indie-audience thanks to his success with “The Squid and the Whale” and his association with Wes Anderson. Considering the plugged-in nature of the audience in New York and Los Angeles that tends to goes to indie films on opening weekends, it’s also tempting to wonder if the controversy, which I’ve been personally guilty of promoting, around critic Armond White’s beyond-over-the-top personal hatred for Noah Baumbach and, more to the point, for Baumbach’s ex-film critic mother, might have boosted interest just a touch. We’ll see what happens when “Greenberg” goes wider next week.

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