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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Today’s trailer — Sofia Coppola is back with “Somewhere”

Over the weekend, Anne Thompson was discussing the imminent return of the youngest member (so far) of the directing dynasty begun by Francis Coppola. For me, the jury on Sophia Coppola is still out to some degree, not because I in any way doubt her talent or skill, but because I wonder about her commitment to storytelling. She has yet to really knock my socks off dramatically, and it worries me slightly that she’s such an outspoken fan of Wong Kar-Wei and Michelangelo Antonioni, two directors of the world’s most gorgeous films that I find nearly unwatchable. On the other hand, Thompson came up with a quote in which Coppola praises Bob Fosse, one of my favorite directors of all time, and his most direct and emotional film, “All That Jazz.”

“I enjoy movies when they’re sincere, from personal experience. Fosse got away with his girlfriend playing his girlfriend. It’s not an all-romanticized idea of himself. It’s honest.”

True enough. Watching the trailer for “Somewhere,” about a hard living actor (Stephen Dorff) and his tween-age daughter (Elle Fanning), it looks to me like she’s still thinking about a key sliver of that film, but I ‘ll get to that some other time. Also, considering that Coppola is about to become a mom for the second time, it’s a topic that likely hits close to home. I’m hopeful about this one.

  

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