"Warm Bodies" may be a strange horror hybrid, a zombie romance with a dearth of big stars, released in the dead of winter over Super Bowl weekend, but it still managed to top the box office chart with a take of about $20 million and beat new releases starring Sylvester Stallone and Al Pacino. How it accomplished that feat reveals some new trends at the box office and should force reconsideration of older conventional wisdom.

After all, "Warm Bodies" succeeded by doing a lot of things right, but it also benefitted from Stallone's "Bullet to the Head" and Pacino's "Stand Up Guys" doing things wrong.

Some lessons from this weekend's chart:

January and February are a good time for horror. Usually, the long stretch between Christmas and Easter is a movie no-man's-land, a dumping ground for low-budget genre movies that the studios have little incentive to support. But already in 2013, we've seen horror hit big with such traditional scarefests as "Texas Chainsaw 3D" and "Mama," as well as such tongue-in-cheek horror hybrids as 'A Haunted House" and "Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters" (last week's champ, which slipped to No. 2 this week). With "Warm Bodies" qualifying as yet another tongue-in-cheek horror hybrid, its success shows that the market for such movies is surprisingly far from saturated.

"Warm Bodies" is a canny blend of genres. Horror has more appeal to young women than box office pundits generally recognize. So mixing it with another genre with young-female appeal, the romantic comedy, is actually a pretty ingenious idea. And appealing to young women is important at this time of year because...

It's the Super Bowl, stupid. So movies with appeal primarily to older men -- movies like "Bullet to the Head" and "Stand Up Guys" that center on older actors packing heat -- weren't going to do well this weekend. It's a wonder, really, that their distributors didn't put them out later, so that their opening weekends would not include a Sunday when their target audience would be riveted to the living room sofa. (Also, both movies would likely keep younger males away, not just because their stars are in their 60s and 70s, but because they're rated R, while "Warm Bodies" is PG-13.) Then again, to be fair to Stallone and Pacino...

The Old-Guys-With-Guns movies aren't doing well this season. Aging stars like Stallone and Pacino might be box-office draws under other circumstances; Stallone has certainly done well with his summer action-ensemble hits, the "Expendables" movies. But in winter 2013, older guys are just not going out to see these movies, or similar ones like Arnold Schwarzenegger's "The Last Stand," Mark Wahlberg and Russell Crowe's "Broken City," or Jason Statham's "Parker." Here's a market that, unlike that for horror, is oversaturated right now.

"Warm Bodies" was cleverly marketed. As a film based on a relatively unfamiliar title (it's based on a 2011 novel by Isaac Marion), the movie needed a lot of help to drum up support. Fortunately, Summit, the indie studio behind the Twilight franchise, knows how to sell horror and romance to teens. Of course, this zombie romance is both more comical and gorier than "Twilight," but the tone of the ads reflected that, with inventive poster slogans like "Dead Sexy" and "There's Nothing Hotter Than a Girl With Brains." And they got out early, creating brand awareness months ago with seemingly ubiquitous TV ads and online trailers. So its target audience was primed to see the film even though it has no big names in the lead roles. Except maybe...

Nicholas Hoult is a star in the making. Who'd have guessed that the nerdy kid from "About a Boy" would have grown into such a hunk? It helps that he's created some awareness for himself by appearing in "X-Men: FIrst Class" as the young Hank McCoy (a.k.a. Beast), as well as its forthcoming sequel. It also didn't hurt that he briefly dated his "X-Men" co-star, publicity magnet Jennifer Lawrence. Those who saw him opposite Colin Firth in the indie hit "A Single Man" a couple years ago know Hoult has a smoldering, pansexual appeal and dramatic chops. So casting him as R, a brooding romantic who has sex appeal despite being undead, turned out to be a no-brainer. He's got starring roles in some likely blockbusters coming up over the next year or so, including "Jack the Giant Slayer," "Mad Max: Fury Road," and of course, "X-Men: Days of Future Past," but his career as a box-office draw seems to have begun this weekend with "Warm Bodies."
CATEGORIES Movies