Puss Boots Tower and Kumar in Another Weakened Weekend

The cartoon cat burglar filched first place from Ben Stiller and Eddie Murphy's crime caper, and left the Asian stoners Harold & Kumar feeling dopey

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A little cat shall lead them. Puss in Boots stayed atop the hot tin roof of the North American box office, winning the weekend with $33 million, according to preliminary studio estimates. The DreamWorks animation spinoff of the Shrek franchise, with Antonio Banderas voicing the flirtatious feline felon, was expected to lose to newcomer Tower Heist, pairing Ben Stiller and Eddie Murphy as high-rise employees planning to rob a Bernie Madoff type (Alan Alda) of his ill-gotten zillions. But Puss confounded all forecasts and pulled off his own heist. The cat burglar triumphs again.

In the process Puss humiliated the weekend’s other new comedy, A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas, third in the Asian-American dopester series, which sniffed out a mild $13 million. Then again, the weekend as a whole was off 25% from 2010′s first weekend in Nov., when the top three films (Megamind, Due Date and For Colored Girls) earned $98.2 million to the $71.1 million amassed by Puss, Tower and H&K. In fact, virtually the entire fall season has been foul, and the low numbers for the year’s first Christmas film must put moguls in a Grinchy mood about their vaunted year-end releases. If Hollywood were to commission a holiday number sung by Bing Crosby, with Yanni on the keyboards, it would be: “It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas — in Greece.”

(MORE: Read Richard Corliss’ review of Puss in Boots)

Give Puss props for holding on tenaciously in its second frame. The movie dropped only 3% ($1 million) from last weekend’s opening, when it had to fight off a Word Series game 7 on Friday and a freakish October snowstorm on the East Coast Saturday. DreamWorks Animation often releases its autumn features the first weekend of Nov., like last year’s Megamind. But the studio’s marketing boss Ann Globe told The Wrap that DreamWorks had always planned a two-weekend opening strategy for Puss. The $75.5 million that the film has earned in 10 days would seem to validate that plan; but do note that Megamind, in its first 10 days, had taken in $88.8 million, or about 18% more than the little ginger cat.

The smart money of Internet prognosticators had been on Tower Heist as a kind of Ocean’s Eleven caper with a boost from the hate-Wall-Street Zeitgeist. Produced for $85 million, and pegged to earn at least $30 million in its first three days, the movie opened at $25.1 million, which is just a smidge higher than the $23.8 million earned by last autumn’s grittier heist film, the R-rated The Town. It was the most anticlimactic vault opening since Geraldo Rivera unlocked Al Capone’s safe.

[MONDAY UPDATE: According to final weekend numbers released today, Tower Heist actually earned $24 million, more than $1 million below its Sunday estimate, and barely edging out The Town‘s opening frame. All other final figures for the top 10 films were within $200,000 of the grosses reported yesterday.]

(MORE: Read Mary Pols’ review of Tower Heist)

The Tower Heist take also disappointed those who were trumpeting Murphy’s return to box-office magnet status. The last live-action hit for the one-time superstar and Shrek donkey was Norbit in 2007 ($95.7 million); his 2008 Meet Dave and 2009 Imagine That earned less than $30 million between them. Whatever magic Murphy was supposed to demonstrate in Brett Ratner’s social comedy didn’t exactly spark. Undaunted, Ratner, who is producing next Feb. 25′s Oscar TV presentation, has picked Murphy is to host the show. That’s good cross-promotion for the Tower Heist DVD, which should hit the stores around then. But if the film doesn’t gain some momentum at the wickets, Murphy will stride on stage as the star of three consecutive big-screen flops.

H&K 3D Xmas makes mock of seasonal sentimentality, but it did honor one hoary Hollywood tradition: opening a Christmas movie in early Nov. For the studio bosses, the horror films of Halloween give way instantly to Yuletide merriment. Five times in the previous nine years, a Christmas film has premiered the week after trick-or-treat night: Tim Allen’s The Santa Clause 2 at $29 million in 2002, Will Ferrell’s Elf at $31.3 million in 2003, Allen’s The Santa Clause 3 at $19.5 million in 2006, Vince Vaughn’s Fred Claus at $18.5 million in 2007 and Jim Carrey’s A Christmas Carol at $25.6 million in 2009.

(MORE: Read Richard Corliss’ review of A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas)

Granted, all these films were toplined by veteran or blooming comedy stars, whereas John Chu (Harold) and Kal Penn (Kumar) are cloutless; and the movie cost only $19 million to make, so no one connected with it will get coal for Christmas. But the home-video longevity of the series and the hazy indulgence of the critics (73% on Rotten Tomatoes) should have goosed the gross. Even though 95% of its patrons paid the surcharge for 3D goggles, the third installment opened below the $14.9 million premiere of the previous 2-D episode, Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay in 2008. Demographically, 3D Xmas and Tower Heist neatly split the weekend’s comedy lovers: 65% of the Stiller-Murphy audience was 35 years or older, while 95% of H&K‘s patrons were under 35. In CinemaScore’s polling of early moviegoers, both films pulled a B.

Among indie films, Like Crazy expanded to 16 theaters in its second weekend and attracted $270,000, for a $450,000 10-day total, which is somewhere between sane and sensational, while Martha Marcy May Marlene passed the $1 million mark with $471,000 on 98 screens in its third frame. The big new film was The Son of No One, starring Channing Tatum, Al Pacino, Katie Holmes and Tracy Morgan, but all that marquee firepower fizzled: the film took in less than $20,000 in 11 venues.

(MORE: Mary Pols disowns The Son of No One)

Maybe some people stayed home last night to watch a prime-time matchup of the nation’s top two college teams. The final score, in a snoozer: LSU 9, Alabama 6. (And this is football, not hockey.) As at Bryant-Denny Stadium, so it is in the nation’s multiplexes and art houses: movies are having a tough time scoring.

Here are the Sunday estimates of this weekend’s top-grossing pictures in North American theaters, as reported by Charles Lyons of Thompson on Hollywood:

1. Puss in Boots, $33 million; $75.5 million, second week

2. Tower Heist, $25.1 million, first weekend

3. A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas, $13 million, first weekend

4. Paranormal Activity 3, $8.5 million; $95.3 million, third week

5. In Time, $7.7 million; $24.2 million, second week

6. Footloose, $4.5 million; $44.8 million, fourth week

7. Real Steel, $3.4 million; $78.75 million, fifth week

8. The Rum Diary, $2.9 million; $10.4 million, second week

9. The Ides of March, $2 million; $36.8 million, fifth week

10. Moneyball, $1.9 million; $70.3 million, seventh week

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