Box office preview: “Season of the Witch” to lose to “True Grit” or “Little Fockers”

January is traditionally the month when the studios release their weakest films and the first weekend after New Years is traditionally one of the softest of the year. So, if ever an adult western from with a slightly dark and offbeat cast to it could be the #1 movie in modern America, this would be the time. Still, it might be a game of inches as Paramount’s “True Grit” will be up against the declining but still popular “Little Fockers” from Universal and one major new wide release with limited prospects.

Nicolas Cage and Ron Perlman in

As per Box Office Mojo, “Season of the Witch” will be opening in over 2,800 theaters this weekend. It’s a blend of action and dark fantasy starring a downcast Nicolas Cage and the very cool Ron Perlman, who I had the pleasure of interviewing this week. If anyone reading my review thinks I’m being a bit hard on it, they should be aware that this film is probably one the worst reviewed films in some time, getting a terrible 3% “Fresh” from Rotten Tomatoes. However, a closer look shows that it’s not so much a film that everyone hates as a film that no one cares to recommend.

The creepy actioner is the maiden voyage as a distributor for Ryan Kavenaugh’s very busy mini-studio, Relativity Media, and it is expected to make as much $12 million or so according to THR’s Pamela McClintock (where are you jolly Carl DiOrio?) and Ben Fritz of the L.A. Times, though somewhat less seems entirely possible. What the film has going for it is a very low budget for an action flick these days, just $40 million.

Another entry, “Country Strong” is expanding to about 1,400 theaters this weekend, but hopes for this musical drama are modest indeed, though fans of country singer Tim McGraw and actress Gwenyth Paltrow should account for something. It’s going to be that kind of a weekend.

  

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Weekend box office: “Little Fockers” and “True Grit” face off as the movies have a worrisome New Year’s (updated)

It’s hard to know what Marshall Rooster Cogburn and stern young Mattie Ross would make of a little or big Focker. However, this weekend turned out to be a surprisingly close competition over a weekend that won’t be giving studio executives any particular excuses to party like it’s 2009 and they’ve just released “Avatar“.

Robert De Niro and Ben Stiller in

As Anne Thompson reminds us, this is a weekend when, unlike the usual rather steep decline of ongoing films, we’ll see very small drops or, especially for family films, significant increases. The Box Office Mojo weekend chart, bears that out.

With no major new releases, “Little Fockers” suffered a 14.7% decline, which would be fantastic almost any other weekend, netting an estimated $26.3 million for Universal. That would be somewhat more impressive had the film not cost a ridiculous $100 million. On the other hand, after two weeks, it’s earned back that amount plus some change. Not bad for a movie that probably has the worst reviews of any recent major hit. (Among “top critics,” only funny guy Glenn Kenny failed to drub the movie with a review that double-damns with the faintest possible praise.)

Nipping at its heels, and perhaps very likely to be the more profitable film over time, was the Coen Brothers’ typically excellent first true-western, “True Grit.” Nikki Finke points out that Friday, New Year’s Eve, “Grit” actually earned a bit more than “Fockers.” I guess we can attribute that to the superior movie-going taste of the nation’s wallflowers. (What night did we see this again?) Still, the total estimated take was $24.5 million for Paramount. On the other hand, the price tag was a mere $38 million.Add to all of that a probable slate of Oscar nominations (though I doubt more than one or two wins) good word of mouth — the second week drop was a beyond miniscule 1.7% — and the proven ability of the Coens’ to make films that people continue watching decades later, and you’ve got one case of a studio being amply rewarded for taking a chance on an old school western. Westerns are, of course, deader than a doornail. The exception is when somebody makes a good one.

UPDATE: I failed to mention previously that, at over $86 million already generated by “True Grit,” this is also apparently by far the most successful Coen Brothers films so far by quite a lot. For comparison, “No Country for Old Men” made $76 million and change for its entire run, including a “Best Picture” Oscar win. Better yet, “True Grit” has an ending that won’t leave a significant portion of the audience angry or dissatisfied, so this film should have really significant legs. I doubt they’ll make another western any time soon, but if the Coens want to make “Truly Grittier,” no studio head would stop them.

Jeff Bridges with CGI botox and some new guy in Another Jeff Bridges showpiece, “Tron: Legacy,” held on fairly well in week 3 with a small 4.4% drop and a weekend estimated total of $18.3 million for Disney. It’s still about $30 million shy of making back its $170 budget, though I’m sure that’s just a week or two away. Still, this is no unalloyed coup. Guess I’m not the only person who wonders why the original “Tron” is even discussed today as anything other than a technological advance.

The New Year’s weekend was an overall bummer. It was down 26% compared to New Year’s 20010, and the year as a whole saw movie receipts declining very slightly. Anne Thompson says it went from $10.6 million to $10.5 million. She added that the real issue is not that seemingly tiny increase. It’s obscured by increasing ticket prices for 3D and other films, but that overall attendance declined by a “whopping” 5%, according to Thompson. I think we can attribute that to a stagnant economy, improving home entertainment options, and the inability of the industry to bring back the long-lost ability to turn movies into events worth getting out of the house for. Call me a complete and utter lunatic, but avoiding the insanely obviously cookie-cutter storylines and characterizations of most movies today might also help slightly.

Still, there was good news this week for a number of family films and Oscar hopefuls too numerous to mention. It also wasn’t bad for the two limited releases which came out last Wednesday. Both were rather downbeat films dealing with relationships unhappy, happy, and non-existent. “Blue Valentine,” with Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams as a married couple on their way to a break-up, emerged victorious from it’s battle to avoid a bookings-killing NC-17 with an R-rating and scored the best per-screen average of the holiday weekend, $45,000 in four theaters for a weekend estimated total of $180,000.

Meanwhile, “Another Year,” which I’ve been covering, started the New Year in, I’m guessing, reasonably OK fashion with $20,000 in six theaters for a total of $120,000. A film about a happy couple and they’re incredibly miserable friends and family members, a likely and definitely well-deserved Oscar nomination for Lesley Manville is the very low budget’s film’s hope for real profitability.

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Weekend box office: Coal in Hollywood’s stocking as “Little Fockers” underperforms and bloated tentpoles tank; Santa smiles on the Coens

Misguided movie populists who say that critics are somehow less relevant than they were 20 years ago and that their reaction in no way tracks the reaction of other human beings should really take a close look at this weekend’s results. It’s an eternal truth that audiences and critics often differ — seeing a lot of movies does tend to make a person somewhat harder to please — but to say that there’s zero correlation between what most critics hate or love and what most audiences members hate or love is not the case. It is true that critics hated, hated, hated this weekend’s #1 film, but that clearly isn’t the entire story.

Robert De Niro and Blythe Danner don't look happyAs I recounted prior to the start of the long Christmas holiday frame last Tuesday, the oracles of the box office were predicting a reaction to “Little Fockers” somewhat in line with the 2004 performance of “Meet the Fockers.” Specifically, the numbers being bandied about were in the $60 or $70 million range for the entire five day period. The total gross instead appears to be roughly $48.3 million for Universal. That is only a couple of million higher than what “Meet the Fockers” earned over a three day period on its Christmas opening in 2004. Remember, movie ticket prices have gone up a few bucks since ’04.

Nikki Finke recounts how the megastar-laden film’s difficult and expensive $100 million production, helmed by the currently luck-challenged Chris Weitz, provided a windfall for Dustin Hoffman and, I understand, allowed him to almost literally phone-in large portions of his performance. Finke estimates that the lastest “Fockers” movie is earning only about 75% of what the prior comedy made. As for the critics, while “Meet the Fockers” left critics unhappy — as opposed to the very well reviewed original smash-hit, “Meet the Parents” — it was a regular success d’estime compared to the woeful reviews of the third film in what critics are praying will remain a trilogy. Strangely enough, this seems to correlate with diminishing returns for the series.

Overall, things weren’t any better, with Sony’s two expensive, poorly reviewed, star-laden turkeys  — “How Do You Know” and “The Tourist — being slaughtered in their second and third weeks, respectively. (To be fair, since it stars literally the two most famous people in the world right now not named “Obama” or “Oprah” or “Palin” or “Assange,” “The Tourist” is doing significantly better than the latest from James Brooks, but both films are money losers right now.) The extremely un-promising and critically derided “Gulliver’s Travels” was all but thrown to the wolves by Fox and its release was delayed until Friday. It opened in 7th place for the weekend with a Lilliputian estimate of $7.2 million.

Anne Thompson notes that this three-day weekend at the movies was 44% lower than last year, and had some choice words on the drop:

Little Fockers repped the widest-appeal offering among the weakest bunch of holiday releases in recent memory. At a time when studios usually try to maximize returns on their strongest pictures, they instead offered audiences a menu of costly, tame, MOR fare—and moviegoers stayed away in droves.

Jeff Bridges and Matt Damon happily calculate their back-end deals in

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Box Office Preview: “Little Fockers” to top “Tron: Legacy” and “Gulliver’s Travels” opens, but, come on, “True Grit” is here. Yee-haw and Merry Xmas.

I could almost end this pre-Christmas Weekend box office preview with the overlong headline above. Nevertheless, I’ll fill in the blanks a little.

Robert De Niro and Ben Stiller face off over

For reasons known only to the masses of this nation’s moviegoers and the strange gods they pray to, the third film in the saga of Greg Focker (Ben Stiller) and his oh-so-hilariously quirky family and in-laws, is expected to top the weekend handily. That seems especially so in the wake of the soft opening last weekend of “Tron: Legacy.”

The nation’s critics, however, will not be pleased. My esteemed colleague/boss, the usually gentle and kindly Will Harris, lost all his holiday cheer and did not spare the rod on “Little Fockers.” He’s hardly alone. Especially for a film with some of the biggest stars of the last forty years in supporting roles, it’s getting absolutely abysmal reviews. A rare exception among the Rotten Tomatoes pull quotes is one of my favorite critics and cinephile bloggers, Glenn Kenny. Glenn admits to having very low expectations and laughing a few times. He went on to rave that the film is “not particularly excruciating” and only 90 minutes long.

As for the cash predictions, it’s not Christmas without jolly Carl DiOrio, who I assume is vacationing this week while Pamela McClintock is pulling b.o. oracle duty at The Hollywood Reporter. She tells us that the magic number over the long holiday weekend is $60 million for the “Little Fockers.” With Ben Fritz of the L.A Times also taking some time off it appears, Daniel Frankel of The Wrap adds that “Fockers” could make as much as $70 million for still somewhat beleaguered Universal. With this many stars, I guess it’s possible people will be fooled persuaded into paying $10 or more a head to see it. And, with the diversity of ages, it should prove that folks from 1 to 92 apparently can’t get enough of poop jokes.

Jeff Bridges takes aim at the box office in Vastly higher up the cinema chain of being, if vastly lower on budget and with only two megastars in tow, “True Grit” will do its best to restore the box office luster of the classic western to our movie screens. It’s apparently an unusually straightforward film for the Coen Brothers, who re-adapted the poignant and funny novel by Charles Portis that was previously filmed back in ’69 by Henry Hathaway with a certain former Marion Mitchell Morrison in the role of irascible, trigger happy Rooster Cogburn. Since it’s the Coens, naturally, the reviews are as rapturous as those for “Fockers” reviews are heinous. Our own Jason Zingale’s sincere but qualified praise seems almost a pan by comparison.

There seems to be a consensus that $20 million for Paramount will be the weekend take for the tale of retribution in the badlands. That’s not bad for a film that cost a relatively modest $38 million (“Fockers” is another $100 million comedy.) Still, can’t hope rooting for a Western to do even better.

Apparently wishing to avoid getting completely ignored in the wake of the other two openers, the  Jack Black vehicle, “Gulliver’s Travels,” will be opening Friday, not Wednesday, to modest expectations. Considering the film allegedly somehow connected to a literary classic by Jonathan Swift had one of the worst trailers I’ve ever seen, that seems fair.

Those wanting to flee the loudness and crudeness of mainstream cinema this weekend may check out “The King’s Speech,” which is expanding into 600 theaters on much Oscar buzz as is the way of the Weinsteins. Or, if they live in a very big city indeed, the debut in limited release of the latest from the arty and gentle Sofia Coppola and Focus Features, “Somewhere.” As in “somewhere there’s a movie about family won’t rely primarily on scatological humor.”

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Mouse reshuffles, Leo the lion on the block, and other tales

* In the real world Obama appears to be rethinking Afghanistan; in the cable TV world Lou Dobbs is relieving CNN of his xenophobia and is threatening to go into politics while The Onion has the real scoop. Meanwhile in the movie world, Disney’s new chairman, Rich Ross, is reorganizing. It sounds as if technology will be leading the way in the new regime. Also, the structure of the organization will resemble more a television network, we’re told, than a movie studio. Once upon a time that might have worried me, but these days TV is hardly any worse than movies. I’m not sure if that’s good news about TV or bad news about movies. (A little of both?)

* The lion of Hollywood has been a bit mangy for a long time now. Peter Bart reports that MGM is about to be sold and the whole thing, 4,000 titles and all, is worth about $1.5 billion, which would be a lot of money to you and me but to a once mighty film studio sure sounds paltray. One factor, even the older titles in the library ain’t what they used to be, either. The studio’s signature titles: “The Wizard of Oz,” “Gone With the Wind,” and “Singin’ in the Rain” are now available on Warner Brother’s DVD along with a good chunk of their best known classics.  The ghosts of Culver City’s glory days are restless tonight.

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* Apparently being a movie critic these days is such an unstable, lousy position that some of the best known reviewers are jumping ship and becoming film festival programmers. Yesterday, it was Newsweek’s David Ansen. Today, it’s the L.A. Weekly/Village Voice’s Scott Foundas. Anne Thompson has the depressing news that might nevertheless be creating more opportunities for some of the better known online folks.

* The fruits of my compatriot Will Harris’s London sojourn are appearing in the form of some extremely worth-your-time interviews. First with writer/director Richard Curtis of the criticially underrated “Love, Actually” and the soon to be released “Pirate Radio.” Also roly-poly movie superstud and general all around good guy Nick Frost of “Shaun of the Dead,” etc., as well as “Pirate” newcomers Tom Sturridge and Talulah Riley gets the Harris treatment as well. Bob says collect ’em all.

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