With 'The Twilight Saga: New Moon' and 'The Blind Side' kicking the doors off at multiplexes around the country during the last three weeks, setting weekend, week-long and November records, theater operators and film distributors have prospered like Walmart on Black Friday. For the year, ticket sales are up about 8 percent; nearly 50,000 more butts have settled into theater seats. When you consider the cheaper entertainment options -- TV, DVDs, light-eating Chihuahuas -- the current boom is genuine movie magic. It is time to declare the '08-'09 recession over, at least at the motion picture box office. Historically, people have convened in the dark at theaters during tough times, and these times are as tough as we've seen since Fred and Ginger set worried hearts aflutter and tired feet to tapping in the midst of the Great Depression.
With 'The Twilight Saga: New Moon' and 'The Blind Side' kicking the doors off at multiplexes around the country during the last three weeks, setting weekend, week-long and November records, theater operators and film distributors have prospered like Walmart on Black Friday. For the year, ticket sales are up about 8 percent; nearly 50,000 more butts have settled into theater seats. When you consider the cheaper entertainment options -- TV, DVDs, light-eating Chihuahuas -- the current boom is genuine movie magic.
But the magic has to do with escapism. As in the '30s, moviegoers are being attracted to romantic fantasies and uplifting tales. You can go 20-deep on this year's box office chart and not find a movie that would remind you of the mess we're in. There are few references to unemployment, far-off wars, or the political division that's tearing families and friends apart in ways unseen since the '60s, maybe since the Civil War.
This weekend, we'll find out if four new movies can swim against this escapist tide. 'Everybody's Fine' is a brooding tale about a widower trying to re-connect with his grown children. 'Armored' is a heist film about an Iraq veteran who is driven to crime because of medical bills, a bad mortgage and his need to protect his young brother from foster care. 'Brothers' is about cruel fate, the story of a war widow who falls in love with her husband's brother, only to learn that her husband isn't dead, after all.
The fourth film, opening in just 10 theaters, is 'Up in the Air,' a hotly-anticipated, much Oscar-buzzed comedy drama starring George Clooney as a corporate Grim Reaper, a man who travels the country dropping pink slips on laid-off workers. The movie's opening will be strong, with a per-theater average probably above $50,000. But it's going to need great reviews and a lot more Oscar buzz to overcome a premise that is too close to everyone's bones.
These four new pictures may be among the best of the year, but they enter a very tough market, a holiday season whose real-world problems just mounted with the announcement of the escalation of the war in Afghanistan. Serious moviegoers will find these theaters, but there won't be enough of them to push any of the new wide releases into the Top 5 this weekend. I look for 'Everybody's Fine' to lead the trio with perhaps $11 million from 2,200 theaters, followed by 'Armored' with $9-10 million from 1,900 theaters, and then 'Brothers' with $5-7 million from 2,000 theaters.
At the top will be 'The Blind Side,' a feel-good movie whose unexpected success might actually earn lightly-regarded Sandra Bullock an Oscar nomination. The movie took in more than $100 million over its first 10 days and is riding a tail-wind of positive word-of-mouth. 'Blind Side's' business actually grew 18 percent from its first to second week, an anomaly that won't be repeated. I expect its business to drop 30 percent to 40 percent this weekend and pull in another $22 million to $24 million.
'New Moon' has to settle down one of these nights and I expect its third weekend to show a 50 percent-60 percent drop from a week ago. That would amount to a third weekend of $18 million to $20 million, which may or may not be enough to hold off 'Disney's A Christmas Carol' for second place. 'Christmas Carol' saw an uptick in viewers last weekend, too, and is the must-see holiday film. Its gross should be north of $15 million, and as high as $18 million.
Here's how I see the weekend:
1. 'The Blind Side.' $28-32 million.
2. 'New Moon.' $18-20 million.
3. 'Disney's A Christmas Carol.' $15-18 million.
4. 'Armored.' $10-11 million.
5. 'Old Dogs. $10 million.
6. '2012.' $9-10 million.
7. 'Everybody's Fine.' $8-9 million.
8. 'Brothers.' $8 million.
9. 'Ninja Assassin.' $6-7 million.
10. 'Precious.' $6 million.