The box office kung-fu of “The Karate Kid” proves strong; “The A-Team” does B-grade business

It’s probably not a completely original thought of mine and it’s obviously a vast oversimplification, but it’s always seemed to me that what audiences really seem to want is more of the same, but different. If something is too unfamiliar, only a limited portion of viewers will be adventurous enough to try out a brand new movie flavor. If it’s too familiar, on the other hand, it’s kind of a bore, at best.

That formula has apparently been in full effect this weekend as a film which put a few gentle twists on a very familiar property prospered at the box office. A second movie — in terms of marketing, at any rate — was an apparent carbon copy of its source material, notwithstanding a new cast, more violence, and a bigger budget (too much bigger, probably). That film will prove vastly less profitable, at best.

Jackie Chan and Jaden Smith in

To be specific, Sony’s PG-rated “The Karate Kid” changed the setting and even the martial arts style of the original (it’s  actually entitled “The Kung Fu Kid” in China and Japan). It also changed the dynamic by making the “kid” (Jaden Smith) an actual child, rather than a high school senior played by a 23 year-old. As for the master, the film cast a performer as renown for his martial arts skills as for his acting and comedy chops, i.e., Jackie Chan. Combine all of that with genuine all-ages family appeal which makes casting an 11-year-old seem like an even shrewder move, and you have, of course, a hit with very healthy box office estimate of some $56 million. That’s almost a 20% improvement over this weekend last year according to Box Office Mojo. Hollywood may be feeling a bit more itself right now.

Despite going through a number of writers over the years, any appealing or intriguing alterations made between the TV and film versions of “The A-Team” were kept a well-hidden secret from everyone. Still, the PG-13 film from Fox had enough appeal to grab up an estimated $26 million from only slightly fewer theaters than “Kid.” Actually, $26 million may be less than half of what its rival made, but it’s a decent showing for a first weekend — assuming you don’t consider that its budget was also more than double that of “The Karate Kid” (i.e., $40 and $110 million, respectively). I wonder if Hollywood will learn a lesson from the ugliness of seeing a plan fail to come together. Nah. In any case it’s nice that my pre-weekend guess about which film would do better proved correct for a change, though I did expect the two pictures to be a bit closer together in terms of grosses.

Further down the list, Dreamworks/Paramount’s “Shrek Forever After” continued following up its below-par opening with a leggy aftermath, netting a very decent $15.8 million estimate. Lesson: if you’re going to run a franchise into the ground with sequels no one really wants that much, coming up with a story that some viewers actually like might help.

The #4 film was last week’s #2, “Get Him to the Greek.” The Judd Apatow formula of raunchy comedy that is actually funny combined with counter-intuitive pro-responsibility messages proved its reliability once again, as the film held reasonably well in its second run. Dropping a below-average 43% to an estimate of just above $10 million, the most morally conservative film to ever reach its clmax with a freaky threesome is now just $4 million shy of making back its $40 million budget. Considering that a sure-to-be lucrative home video run lies ahead, I’m calling this film a success. I think we’re assured of having Russell Brand and Jonah Hill horsing around before us for a while longer.

On the other hand, if you want to see the somewhat controversial and, I think, badly mis-marketed creepy science-fiction thriller, “Splice,” in a theater, do so soon. It dropped by 61% percent and to tenth place in its second week, earning only a wan $2.86 million estimate.

Sarah Polley and friend in

This was also an interesting weekend for limited releases. I don’t have time to go into everything (Indiewire does) but the #1 film in the country in terms of per-screen averages was, according to the Numbers, the biographical documentary, “Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work.” It averaged $24,500 in seven theaters for a total of $171,50o. There’s nothing like the appeal of being a true show business survivor.

Also debuting quite strongly was the Sundance fave, “Winter’s Bone” which made $21,350 in four theaters. True, that only comes to $85,442 but, considering its $2 million budget and strong word of mouth, I’d say Roadside Attractions will do pretty well on this one. That’s especially so as an Oscar nomination or two — particularly for its highly acclaimed possible break-out star, Jennifer Lawrence, may not be impossible if the Academy remembers to take its ginkgo this year.

  

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