paranormal activity

It was a weekend of surprises at the box office. The most pleasant for those of us who prefer a chill up the spine to a gag reflex was the outstanding performance of “Paranormal Activity,” which handily defeated the dismemberment sweepstakes of “Saw VI” despite being in over a thousand fewer theaters than its horrific competitor.

As documented by Carl DiOrio of The Hollywood Reporter and the bean counters of Box Office Mojo, Paramount’s extremely wise ultra-ultra-ultra-low-budget paranormal pick-up earned an estimated $22 million as it expanded to 1,945 screens this week with a outstanding per screen average of $11,321. That’s compared to an estimated $14.8 million for the latest “Saw” entry (two more are still scheduled, including the inevitable 3-D installment) with a per screen average of $4,875, less than half of its spooky competitor.

The irony in all this is that, now that critics have had to paid their shekels to see the unscreened “Saw VI,” not only has it gotten better reviews than the last few entries — which is, of course, not the same thing as getting good reviews — it turns out to have at least an attempt at political content with a plot that involves both the sub-prime mortgage and health care debacles.

Seems to me that Lions Gate really had nothing to lose by screening this for critics and the political angle might have generated a bit more interest. “‘Sicko‘ for real sickos! ‘Capitalism: A Hate Story’! says Geekboy Moonraker of ‘Ain’t it Bloody Disgusting'” might have at least captured a bit more attention. Though, reading Owen Gleiberman‘s highly negative review, it’s interesting to note that both “Zombieland” and “Saw VI” do call attention to our nation’s obesity epidemic.

While we’re talking horror, just a quick side note that the week’s highest per-screen average was Lars von Trier’s infamously graphic, though artistic, wave of mutilation, “Antichrist.” The Cannes controversy-starter earned an estimated average of $12,250 on six screens in its first week. Presumably, this one is going for the kind of earnings of a good old-fashioned succès de scandale.

Warner’s “Where the Wild Things Are” came in at #3, dropping a somewhat more than expected 55.9% with an estimated $14.42 million. That’s actually holding a bit better than I expected, given the film’s somewhat arty approach and slightly muted reviews. Meanwhile, the critically dissed “Law Abiding Citizen” from Overture and “Couples Retreat,” a much needed fiscal bright spot for Universal, seem to have their fans. Both are holding rather well and collecting roughly $12.7 and $11.1 million respectively.

Way under-performing, however, was Summit’s CGI animation version of Osamu Tezuka’s “Astro Boy.” A lot of people are calling the film underrated and our Jason Zingale seemed pretty fond of it as well, but the usual family audience simply failed to show. The result was a horrible sixth place showing for the $65 million budgeted family film on its opening weekend, with an estimated take of only just over $7 million.

This might be just my own pro-retro tendencies overriding whatever common sense there is the Hollywood conventional wisdom, but I really wonder if the film might have done better with traditional 2-D animation. I certainly prefer the look of the original television series in all it’s black and white glory to the less appealing character designs — to me, anyway — in the new version. I’d argue there’s still a place in the world for old-style animation, and this may be Exhibit A. You’d certainly never see the gang at Pixar visually mutilating an anime classic in this way. (John Lasseter is, of course, one of the strongest advocates around of keeping 2-D.)

Less of a surprise was the poor performance of “Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant,” which pretty much had box office doom written all over it. With an estimate of under $6.35 in over 2,700 theaters on its opening weekend, it’s a another blow to the struggling Universal.

Doing a bit better in terms of per-screen averages is the week’s other new semi-major release, “Amelia.” The biopic starring Hillary Swank about the legendarily disappeared flyer, Amelia Earhart, brought in just over $4 million with a just under $5,000 per screen average.

It might not be onward and upward, however. The small problem is that no one seems to like this movie very much, certainly not our own David Medsker. If, as were we were told on Friday, Fox Searchlight really is expecting awards buzz and good word of mouth to significantly bolster the $40 million flying flick, they’re far higher than poor Ms. Earhart ever got.

Hilary Swank in