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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The Golden Globes nominations — gee whiz

Okay, so we know the Golden Globes are strange.

Nikki Finke will give you a vision of low-rent corruption that, for all I know, is entirely true. It sure seems to match the often bizarre-to-inexplicable nominations and awards at times. One thing is sure, few of us will ever let the Globes live down that infamous 1982 award to Pia Zadora when she won “New Star of the Year in a Motion Picture” award for a movie called “Butterfly.” People make fun of the fact that the less than superb actress won the award, but it’s a lot more shocking when you consider that her competition was probably two of the more exciting movie performances of the entire 1980s, Howard E. Rollins in “Ragtime” and, more famously, Tim Hutton in “Ordinary People.” I guess they split the pro-talent vote. The category was dead within two years.

Meanwhile back here in 2010, the dramatic “Best Picture” list is mostly in line with the movies that are generally getting a lot of awards and nominations, though I’m sure people will have the usual disagreements. (I know I do). Also, no big surprise, “The Social Network” and “The King’s Speech” did very well in the nominations. “The Fighter” and “Inception” also got a bit of a boost that might Academy voters keep them in mind as Oscar dark horses.

Leonardo DiCaprio and Joseph Gordon-Levitt in

This year’s “Comedy or Musical” Best Picture category is, however, a real doozy. It really looks like the foreign press thinks that comedies don’t really have to be good to be nominated; it’s a sort of twisted semi-reverse snobbery. I know reviews and awards are not the same, but the critically drubbed “The Tourist” got a “Fresh” rating of 07% from “Top Critics” and 20% from critics overall at Rotten Tomatoes. Could the reactions of Hollywood Foreign Press members be that different from domestic press?

I know there’s been some quibbling about whether it qualifies as a “Comedy.” That doesn’t really bother me. I’m sure it’s trying to be funny and probably has a happy ending. That makes it a comedy in my book, though not necessarily a good one. Also, I have nothing against contrarians who laud movies others deride, but the Hollywood Foreign Press isn’t some group of freethinking cinephiles in the tradition of Pauline Kael and Manny Farber.

Cher and Stanley Tucci dish about awards in As for the other films in the category, only “The Kids Are All Right” has been generating the kind of overall appreciation that makes it awards material. “RED” is a reasonably well-liked, successful film, but this will probably be it’s only award nomination outside of genre-specific groups. “Alice in Wonderland” did very well but got a “meh” critical reaction overall and will probably get some technical Oscar nominations. “Burlesque” is a movie that people barely liked as a sort of guilty pleasure and pretty clearly is only on the list because the Golden Globes people really want Cher and Christina Aguilera to drop by.

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Weekend box office: “The Voyagle of the Dawn Treader” and “The Tourist” on a dull trip

Things should perk up a bit at the box office next weekend with “Tron: Legacy” and “How Do You Know,”  but this weekend is proving to be a bust. As was just about certain on Thursday, “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader” came in on top, but that doesn’t mean the news is good.

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The estimate of $24.5 million for the weekend over at Box Office Mojo is more than $10 million shy of the low-end figures that jolly Carl DiOrio trumpeted and which sounded perfectly reasonable to me. Apparently, this series is not being greeted with anything like the same sort of loyalty a Harry Potter or “Lord of the Rings” receives. Just as apparently, Fox and Walden Media’s strategy of targeting those sometimes Harry-negative and nearly always C.S. Lewis-positive evangelical Christian groups didn’t do much. Sometimes people can tell when they’re being marketed to and they don’t always like it.

Even so, this series tends to do very well abroad. Also, as Nikki Finke mentions, the studio is banking on word of mouth to help smooth things over. I imagine the reason for that is the Cinemascore A rating mentioned by Anthony D’Alessandro. Fox’s decision to take this off Disney’s hands, while reducing the outsize budgets, may still prove wise.

It’s budget was a mere $100 million, about $50 million less than “Dawn Treader, and the difference between the prediction and the reality is not as enormous. However, this weekend’s #2 film’s grosses are not something that will put a spring in the step of Sony executives. “The Tourist” nailed an estimate of $17 million for the weekend, as opposed to the $20 million figure that was thrown out earlier. It might be a bit harsh for Nikki Finke to use the “tank” word, but expectations had already been tamped down hugely for a movie from a hot young director starring, pretty literally, the two most famous actors in the world.

Angelina Jolie and Johnny Depp in

When a movie directed by a critical darling like Florian Henckel von Donnersmark (“The Lives of Others”) gets drubbed by critics the way this one has — and the Rotten Tomatoes “top critics” have been especially harsh — there’s more at work than the sophomore slump. On the other hand, “The Tourist” did nail a decent B from Cinemascore, for what that’s worth. We’ll see whether my glib line about this being a movie with a great pedigree that could turn out be just a dog applies to the worldwide box office over the long haul. Despite everything, this could be another “Knight and Day.” Unfortunately, a movie doesn’t have to be particularly liked by anyone to do well.

It’s award season and things are looking a lot more interesting right now in the world of limited release. The week’s highest per-screen average by far was at the four theaters showing “The Fighter.” Grosses for director David O. Russell’s apparent comeback after the box office failure of “I Heart Huckabees” averaged $80,000, for an outstanding opening weekend estimate of $320,000. It’s pretty clear that Paramount’s evident commercial confidence in this film was eminently justified.

Natalie Portman in Also doing amazing business, “Black Swan” enjoyed a boffo second weekend with an average of over $37,000 in 90 theaters. It was actually the #6 movie in the country while showing in only a tiny fraction of the theaters its competitors are playing in, and garnered an estimate of over $3.3 million. Considering the ballet thriller’s $5.6 total take so far, a budget of only $13 million, and the near certainty of multiple Oscar nominations, this could be the year’s sleeper cash cow. I haven’t seen it yet, but I will say that studios should never underestimate the cross-gender appeal of over-the-top melodrama and a bit of terror. Fox Searchlight was smart not to.

  

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Box office preview: “Dawn Treader” to take a reasonably lucrative voyage but “The Tourist” may be a stranger to big b.o. bucks

We have two new major releases and which one will be on top is a pretty clear cut case. Even so, it will be relatively muted victory.

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“The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader” is the third installment in the adaptation of C.S. Lewis’s immensely popular fantasy novels. Though it was helmed by veteran filmmaker Michael Apted, it’s not entirely smooth sailing for the family-friendly adventures. Disney dropped the series after the somewhat disappointing showing of “The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian” back in 2008. Since then, as discussed by both Ben Fritz and jolly Carl DiOrio Fox has picked it up and trimmed the budget in partnership with Walden Media to an oh-so-thrifty $155 million (!).

That’s probably a good thing because it doesn’t seem to be generating a huge amount of excitement, at least from critics. On the other hand, Narnia fans are a sure bet to turn out and, as the first 3D installment in the series, “Dawn Treader” could enjoy a bit of a bump from those inflated ticket prices. DiOrio’s guess of $35-45 million seems reasonable.

Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie in From everything I’ve seen today, Sony’s “The Tourist” looks like it may be one of those movies that comes with the finest pedigree but just turns out to be a bit of a dog. Not only does this remake of a French thriller little-seen in the U.S. boast the truly enormous star voltage of Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie, it’s the follow-up film to the Oscar winning worldwide success, “The Lives of Others” by German writer-director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck. I saw von Donnersmark introduce that film before its domestic opening. He turns out to be an extremely fluent and completely unaccented English speaker who, even before his film opened in the U.S., was not shy about his lust to take on American films.

The maker of the compellingly dour political thriller has taken on an attempt at a sophisticated, lighthearted thriller along the lines of such non-Hitchcock Hitchcock films as “Charade.” And, where that film had a screenplay by the great Peter Stone, this one has one credited to von Donnersmark, Christopher McQuarrie (“The Usual Suspects”) and Julian Fellowes (“Gosford Park”). You can’t blame a guy for trying.

The review by our own David Medsker was entirely unenthusiastic, but it was a rave compared with the highly negative reaction of critics overall. The same scribes who rhapsodized over “The Lives of Others” largely found “The Tourist” an exercise in high-gloss boredom. While audiences will be lured by the appearance of an ideal date movie the first weekend, you’ve got to wonder how the film will do once people see it for themselves. Still, about $20 million seems to be figure for the first weekend. We’ll see about the legs later on.

There’s also a bunch going on in the realm of limited releases. Looking at Box Office Mojo, we have a significant expansions of “Black Swan” after its boffo opening weekend. One brand new entry this weekend in five theaters is a new version of Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” which, despite starring the great Helen Mirren in a bit of gender-altering casting is getting pretty dismal reviews for famed/infamous director Julie Taymor.  A Shakespeare adaptation with bad reviews is a movie in trouble. “The Fighter” debuts also on four screens, though you can expect many more later.

Christian Bale and Mark Wahlberg in

  

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Trailer: “The Tourist” — because you can only watch “North by Northwest” and “Charade” so many times

Not much time for long and newsy posts this week, but there’s always time for a cool trailer. “The Tourist,” this is one megastar vehicle I think I may already be sold on seeing. A remake of a French thriller starring Sophie Marceau that flew completely under most American radars, myself definitely included, “Anthony Zimmer,” “The Tourist” appears to be a rather jolly tale of intrigue along the lines of the more lighthearted Hitchcock and Hitchcockian international spy and crime tales like the ones alluded to above. Check it out.

In a movie world where acting modes lean to grim seriousness, leavened by the occasional out-and-out parody, it’s nice to see Angelina Jolie and Johnny Depp channeling the gently tongue-in-cheek approach of folks like Audrey Hepburn and Cary Grant. What’s more impressive is that the director is the multisyllabic German director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck. His first-rate Oscar winner, “The Lives of Others” had its humorous moments, but it was heavy-duty stuff, pretty much the opposite of this kind of cinema souffle. Very interesting. The script is credited to a trio of writers, including Julian Fellowes (“Gosford Park”) and Christopher McQuarrie (“The Usual Suspects”).

  

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