Box Office: Surprise! Dolphins and Jesus Beat Cancer and Dead Kids

Parents drove their kids to see family films this weekend, turning the other new movies into roadkill. Audiences had no sixth sense for the Shyamalanish Dream House and 50/50 couldn't bring moviegoers to its bedside.

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Parents drove their kids to see family films — Disney’s rerelease of The Lion King, the rejuvenating Dolphin Tale and the Christian drama Courageous [EM] and turned the other new movies into roadkill. Of the three mainstream films opening this weekend, 50/50, the cancer buddy comedy that had received a cheerful diagnosis from critics, lured just $8.9 million worth of patients to its bedside. Audiences had no sixth sense for the Shyamalanish Dream House; it scared up a meager $8.2 million worth of business. And the R-rated romcom What’s Your Number?, with Anna Faris canvassing her past boyfriends for a suitable soulmate, found few beaux at the box office, earning a wallflowery $5.6 million. Among pictures aimed at grownups, only Moneyball scored, its $12.5 million finishing just behind the No. 1 Dolphin Tale‘s $14.2 million at the North American box office, according to early studio estimates.

[MONDAY UPDATE: In the actual tallies released this afternoon, many of the top-10 titles ended the weekend $300,000–$500,000 below the Sunday estimates. Only Courageous did better than predicted, edging into fourth place ahead of 50/50. In a photo finish at the bottom of the list, Killer Elite and Contagion swapped ninth and 10th places. The updated numbers: 1. Dolphin Tale, $13.9 million; 2. Moneyball, $12 million; 3. The Lion King, $10.6 million; 4. Courageous, $9.1 million; 5. 50/50, $8.6 million; 6. Dream House, $8.1 million; 7. Abduction, $5.6 million; 8. What’s Your Number?, $5.4 million; 9. Killer Elite, $4.92 million; 10. Contagion, $4.91 million.]

In the past, weekends on the Sep.-Oct. cusp have welcomed the debut of popular films. Last year The Social Network opened at $22.4 million; in 2009, Zombieland premiered to $24.7 million; in 2008, Beverly Hills Chihuahua amassed $29.3 million; in 2007, The Game Plan did $22.95 million; and in 2006, Open Season took in $23.6 million. This time, no new movie — including Courageous, which earned $8.8 million but is a special case we’ll explain shortly — reached the $10 million mark. A weekend without a wide-release film that opened in eight figures: that hasn’t happened in ages. (The B.O. stats mavens couldn’t say exactly when. This amateur’s wild guess: Jan. 5-7, 2007, when Freedom Writers earned $9.4 million.)

Not that 50/50 is a flop, exactly: shot for a thrifty $8 million, the film should make a profit. It also achieved a sterling “A” rating from early moviegoers polled by CinemaScore, so word-of-mouth should bring in more business. But the subject matter of this sort-of comedy — the true-life story of a young man (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, replacing James McAvoy at the last moment) who contracts spinal cancer and is urged by his louche buddy (Seth Rogen) to use the disease to get laid — must have creeped out younger patrons; 65% of the weekend audience was over 25. The horror film Dream House boasted star pedigree (Daniel Craig, Naomi Watts, Rachel Weisz) and an I-see-dead-children premise that should have enticed enough viewers to reach the $10-million level. But the film was not shown to critics in advance, and the trailer unconscionably revealed the plot’s big twist, leaving audiences thinking they already knew whodunit. For the producer Morgan Creek, and the distributor Universal, that’s suicide masquerading as showmanship.

The underwhelming earnings posted by these eagerly awaited films is further evidence of the industry’s renewed hard times. The teen, young male and date-night demographics sought by 50/50, Dream House and What’s Your Number? have gone back into hibernation after pouring billions in the summer box office. Now Hollywood is back in its trough of 2011’s first four months, when kids movies scored and all others bored.

Last month, Drive and Warrior — critically acclaimed action films (i.e., they were slow and artsy) — tanked with actual paying customers, again delaying the star status of Ryan Gosling and Tom Hardy. Taylor Lautner, the teen wolf of the Twilight series, couldn’t transfer his fan base to the identity-crisis drama Abduction ($19.1 million in 10 days). Sex and the City‘s Sarah Jessica Parker, who bombed in her career-gal romance I Don’t Know How She Does It (a lame $9.2 million in 17 days), is now joined by Faris, the chipper darling of the Scary Movie franchise a few years ago. Come on, moviegoers: it’s your role to anoint movie stars, and you’re falling down on the job.

Well, there’s Brad Pitt, who serendipitously timed the release of Moneyball to the thrilling end of the baseball season. Pitt’s championship charisma did lead the film to a decent launch. Granted, in each of its first two weekends, the story of Oakland A’s General Manager Billy Beane has lost to movies about the lower mammals (a pride of lions and a porpoise with a purpose); but for its full week Moneyball was the top grosser, winning every day but Sat. and Sun., when the kids come out. As of today, it leads Dolphin Tale by $1 million in total revenue. Credit its appeal to women as well as guys to the movie’s major subplot of Beane’s sweet relationship with his teenage daughter, which says that the hard-driving executive is also a tender dad.

Courageous takes that subplot of working father and needy daughter and elevates its to the main story about a cop who needs the girl’s death to convince him that Job One is family man. The fourth feature from the Albany, Ga., evangelical production company of Sherwood Pictures, Courageous follows the 2003 Flywheel (made for $20,000, grossed $1 million), the 2006 Facing the Giants (made for $10,000, grossed $10 million) and the 2008 Fireproof (made for $500,000, grossed $33 million). The company is the media arm of Sherwood Baptist Church, whose preacher brothers make the pictures — Alex Kendrick directs, co-writes and often stars, while Stephen produces and co-writes — and whose parishioners volunteer to perform and work in the crew. Like the Christian-themed Soul Surfer, the Kendrick’s holy-cop film (with a $1-million budget) was pitched to the faithful, who came out fervently this weekend and gave it an A-plus CinemaScore. Opening in just 1,161 theaters, Courageous had the top per-screen average of any movie in the top 25. Even an agnostic would call that heavenly.

In indie action, the family-apocalypse film Take Shelter — like Courageous, it’s about a troubled father and his endangered daughter — opened to $56,171 on three screens for a solid $18,724 average. Margaret, the Anna Paquin drama made in 2005 (three years before she started True Blood) by Kenneth Lonergan of You Can Count on Me fame, registered a pitiful $7,496 in two theaters. Even less was earned, in six theaters, by Sarah Palin: You Betcha!, Nick Broomfield and Joan Churchill’s stalker doc — proving that people who hate Palin are even less likely to pay to see a movie about the politician than people who love her (the adulatory The Undefeated was a loser this summer). The rare success story in Indieville was Kevin Hart: Laugh at My Pain. Made for $750,000, the comedy-concert doc has earned $6.2 million since opening Sep. 9. That makes it one of the few mini-hits of this chilly movie autumn.

Here are the Sunday estimates of this weekend’s top-grossing pictures in North American theaters, as reported by Box Office Mojo:

1. Dolphin Tale, $14.2 million; $37.5 million, second week

2. Moneyball, $12.5 million; $38.5 million, second week

3. The Lion King, $11.1 million; $679.7 million, third week of rerelease

4. 50/50, $8.9 million, first weekend

5. Courageous, $8.8 million, first weekend

6. Dream House, $8.2 million, first weekend

7. Abduction, $5.65 million; $19.1 million, second week

8. What’s Your Number?, $5.6 million, first weekend

9. Contagion, $5 million; $64.7 million, fourth week

10. Killer Elite, $4.9 million; $17.4 million, second week