“How to Train Your Dragon” wins the box office race; “Hot Tub Time Machine” is all wet compared to “Alice”

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Yes, no gigantic surprises as the combination of family appeal, outstanding reviews, good word of mouth, the 3-D inflationary spiral, and a sufficient number of theaters in which to milk it, made for a solid opening for the weekend’s most high profile new release. To be specific, as per Box Office Mojo‘s handy dandy weekend chart, the 3-D animated “How to Train Your Dragon,” netted an estimate of $43.3 million for Dreamworks/Paramount and enjoyed the highest per-screen average of any film released this week on more than one screen, and it was on 4,055 of them. It’s a result not far from what was expected earlier.

Some may find this a slightly below-par opening. True to form in the ever-spinning world of Hollywood PR, some executive for a rival studio complimented the film but told Nikki Finke it tracked badly — and some day I’m going to learn exactly what that means — because it “lacked comedy,” which confuses me deeply. I mean, the trailer made me laugh. I guess he means it lacked a poop-eating joke or something. Anyhow, Ms. Finke is quite correct that, given the good word of mouth and the coming school holidays it should enjoy “good multiples.”

Meanwhile, Anthony D’Alessandro, Anne Thompson’s resident box office guru, has this to add:

While some box office analysts are crying foul that this figure reps a paltry opening weekend, particularly for a 3D film saddled with an estimated $165-million budget, these claims overlook the fact that animation films are a different breed at the box office than run-of-the-mill features.  Toons have longer legs, making anywhere from 30-35% of their total domestic haul in their opening weekend, whereas the average bow reps 50%.

In other words, do not cry for the filmmakers or Dreamworks. They’re going to do fine.

And, though their film is out of the top spot, neither should you shed a tear for Disney or Tim Burton even if “Alice in Wonderland” is out of the #1 spot. They had a terrific three week run at the top spot and this week’s second place estimate of $17.3 million is not too shabby either.

John Cusack, Rob Corddry, Craig Robinson, Lizzy Caplan, and Clarke Duke suffer past shock in On the other hand, the melancholy clowns of “Hot Tub Time Machine” led by John Cusack, Rob Cordry, the always hilarious Craig Robinson, and Clarke Duke, could perhaps benefit from a bit of sympathy. The comedy from MGM, currently on the auctioneer’s block, earned an estimated $13.65 million.

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“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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