The weekend box office was supposed to be dominated by 3D racing video game adaptation "Need for Speed," which was expected to open in the upper $20 millions. Opening in second place was supposed to be "Tyler Perry's The Single Moms Club," which was expected to open around $20 million, as his comedies usually do. And last week's cartoon "Mr. Peabody & Sherman," which debuted in second place, was expected to be in the mix, losing about a third of last week's business to finish around $20 million and land in second or third place.
Of these movies, only "Peabody" behaved as expected, thereby winning by default with an estimated $21.2 million, for a not-bad two-weekend total of $63.2 million. Last week's chart-topper, "300: Rise of an Empire," also performed more or less as predicted, losing nearly 60 percent of last week's sales to wind up with an estimated $19.1 million, good for second place and a two-weekend total of $78.3 million. But "Need for Speed" opened well below expectations, debuting in third place with only an estimated $17.8 million. And "Moms" opened down in fifth place (three-week-old Liam Neeson thriller "Non-Stop" was fourth, with an estimated $10.6 million), scoring only an estimated $8.3 million, the lowest debut ever for a Perry movie.
What went wrong with these supposed sure things that they couldn't beat a talking dog movie written off last week as a money-losing flop or a week-old, star-free swords-and-sandals sequel? There are some possible answers, but they may shock the experts because they go against the conventional wisdom.
1. Video game movies don't work. This should be a truism, but the studios keep making them. They don't cross over to the non-gamer audience, but it's also unclear why gamers would go see the movie when they can stay home and play the game. Only one video game movie, 2001's "Lara Croft: Tomb Raider," has ever broken $100 million at the domestic box office. At this point, there's no reason to think that "Need for Speed," which cost a reported $66 million to make, will drive within miles of that landmark.
2. Speedy cars and a multi-ethnic cast do not automatically give you the next "Fast and the Furious" franchise.
3. Aaron Paul is not a movie star. Not yet, anyway. "Breaking Bad" fans loved him, but that show, for all its massive buzz, was still a basic-cable hit with an average of about 7.6 million viewers per week (including those who watched each episode on DVR within a week of its initial airing), which is still pretty cultish. Even so, had just half of those 7.6 million bought tickets this weekend, "Need for Speed" would have lived up to the predictions and scored a debut in the upper 20s. Maybe "Breaking Bad" fans just aren't ready to see Paul as someone other than Jesse Pinkman yet.
4. Retrofitted 3D doesn't usually drive customers. Not in North America, anyway, where the economically hard-pressed really don't want to pony up the surcharge for glasses rentals unless the visuals of the movie truly demand to be seen in 3D, a la "Gravity." And in a case like that, the filmmakers knew it and shot the film in 3D, rather than converting it after the fact, as with "Need for Speed." That 43 percent of the film's grosses came from 3D tickets is actually pretty impressive; often, for a generic action spectacle like this, 3D sales will represent just a fourth or a third of the opening-weekend take.
5. Tyler Perry movies without "Madea" in the title or the cast don't do as well. Check out the "Single Moms" poster. No six-foot-plus gun-toting granny there? Pass.
6. Perry may have oversaturated his own market. This is his third directorial effort in 12 months. His last film, December's "A Madea Christmas," already showed signs of Perry fatigue among his audience; it opened with just $16 million, well below the $25 million floor for Perry's other "Madea" movies.
7. The crossover effort isn't working for Perry. Casting Larry the Cable Guy in "Madea Christmas" didn't help broaden Perry's fanbase, and including white and Latina actresses in the cast of "Moms" doesn't appear to be helping either. For better or worse, non-black audiences don't think Perry's movies are for them.
8. Timing is important. Perry movies tend to do well when released near Christian or secular family holidays, like Christmas or Thanksgiving or Easter, occasions that send Perry's predominantly Christian viewers to the multiplex in large groups. This weekend happened to mark the Jewish holiday of Purim, but that's probably not an occasion Perry's viewers would take note of.
9. The movie audience is aging. Some 55 percent of "Need for Speed" viewers were over 25; for "Moms," that over-25 figure shoots up to 80 percent. That's not necessarily bad news, unless most your marketing efforts are targeted at younger viewers.
There was some good news at the box office. For one, "Peabody" may just be benefiting from good timing, being ready in the marketplace as the family cartoon audience finally moves on from "The LEGO Movie" after its sixth week in release.
For another, "The Grand Budapest Hotel" continued to do smash business in limited release after last week's jaw-dropping debut. Having averaged more than $200,000 per screen in four theaters last weekend, it expanded to 66 theaters this week and did a still-huge $55,152 per screen, for an estimated take of $3.6 million and an eighth-place finish on the chart.
And "Veronica Mars" suggested that there is a way to translate cult TV success into theatrical profits. The Kickstarter-funded film debuted with an estimated $2.0 million on just 291 screens, good enough for 10th place and a solid $6,945 per-screen average. ("Need for Speed," opening on 3,115 screens, averaged $4,378 per screen. Like Aaron Paul, Kristen Bell is not a big box office draw, but at least she's playing her beloved TV character here. And since the movie cost just $6 million to make, it seems likely that it'll become profitable as the movie expands into more theaters over the coming weeks. Hollywood will be watching this one closely as a test case for crowdfunding, and so far, the results look positive.
Photo courtesy DreamWorks Animation