The Devil Made Them Do It: No-Budget Horror Film Tops a Big Weekend

For once, the box office enjoys a 'normal' week: big bucks from a cheapo thriller, star-driven action films and a Chipmunks movie make it seem like old times

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Suzan Crowley and Fernanda Andrade in The Devil Inside.

Hollywood moguls awoke to stats from the first full weekend of 2012 as if from a bad dream. After a year of diminished returns and evaporating audiences, and a dread that things were bound to get even worse, the box office numbers made it seem like the good old times. A cheapo horror movie lured young-adult moviegoers back to theaters. Star-vehicle action films showed plenty of muscle. Animated rodents scampered past the $100-million mark. Grownups supported a grim movie made from a best-selling novel. And the post-New Year’s weekend was up 29% from the same three days last year. The Mayans may have forecast bad news for the end of the year, but Hollywood loves how it’s starting.

The Devil Inside, the weekend’s one new movie in wide release, proved to be a multiple shocker, to audiences and the industry. Paramount Pictures hadn’t expected much when it paid $1 million for this mashup of two exhausted subgenres — exorcism dramas and fake-found-footage horror films. Sneak-preview crowds reportedly booed the picture, and the studio predicted a $6 million haul. But The Devil scared up $2 million in Thursday midnight screenings and a sensational $14.95 million for the rest of Friday — a veritable epiphany for the Feast of the Magi. The Devil expects to finish the three-day frame with a Beelzeboffo $34.6 million at North American theaters, according to preliminary estimates, higher than the three-day opening for any film in the first two months of 2011. Not bad, considering that the first weekend of the year is generally considered Death Valley, dumpster time.

(UPDATE: Final weekend figures show that The Devil Inside earned “only” $33.7 million—still higher than any three-day debut in early 2011, when the top Jan.-Feb. hit, Green Hornet, opened to $33.5 million. Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, at an actual $19.9 million, and Sherlock Homes: A Game of Shadows, at $13.7 million, also did not quite meet their estimates. But everyone remains happy.)

(MORE: TIME’s 10 Worst Movies of 2011)

What’s even weirder is that, as far as audience enthusiasm goes, The Devil got nada. The critics’ abysmal 7%  assessment on the Rotten Tomatoes website might be expected; the movie wasn’t directed at discerning adults. But CinemaScore, the outfit that solicits opinions from early moviegoers, announced an unheard-of F grade. That would mean that every viewer polled had to give The Devil the very lowest mark. Apparently someone at the polling company wasn’t doing the math. “I think evil spirits corrupted CinemaScore’s model,” a Paramount executive emailed Deadline Hollywood’s Nkiki Finke. “Because the breakdown was ‘A’ = 16%, ‘B’ = 18%, ‘C’ = 24%, ‘D’ = 23%, ‘F’ = 19%. I’ll admit I went to public school but I think this should have got us a ‘C’!”

The studio will take the F, the $30-plus million and the audience that came to see the movie. Last year, young customers largely renounced filmgoing for social networking; this weekend they fell for The Devil‘s viral marketing campaign (fake 911 calls, the giggle-worthy tag line that the Vatican doesn’t want you to see this picture) and swarmed back into theaters. Nearly 60% of the movie’s ticket buyers were under 25, and 54% were males. If those groups keep returning in 2012, Hollywood will have restored its dream demographic.

Even if The Devil had tanked, the Paramount poobahs would be purring. Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol picked up another $20.5 million to validate Tom Cruise’s comeback campaign; in three-and-a-half-weeks it has earned $170.4 million in North America and nearly $300 million more abroad. The celestial luster of Robert Downey, Jr., was only marginally dimmer, as his action-deduction movie Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows finished third with $14 million and has amassed $157.4 million domestic, plus another $177.2 million in foreign climes. Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked ($9.5 million weekend, $111.6 million total in its fourth week) and Steven Spielberg’s 3-D CGI movie The Adventures of Tintin ($6.6 million, $61.9 million) held onto the family audience. Spielberg’s other film, the live-action epic War Horse, fared worse, dropping 40% from last week’s take although it added more than 250 screens. For this Oscar hopeful, “Neigh!” is beginning to look like “Nay.”

One indie-studio film broke wider and hit bigger, as the John Le Carré spy thriller Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy expanded from 57 to 809 theaters in its fifth weekend and earned $5.8 million for a top-10 finish. The Iron Lady, with Meryl Streep’s award-winning turn as British PM Margaret Thatcher, grossed a forceful $172,000 in just five venues; it goes wider next weekend. Wim Wenders’s Pina, his 3-D tribute to choreographer Pina Bausch, jetéd to $81,000 on three New York City screens. The Iranian drama A Separation, winner of 10 critics’ awards for the year’s best foreign-language film, and an Oscar front-runner, pulled $96,000 in six theaters. And the black-lesbian coming-of-age Pariah took in $111,573 at 11 sites.

Little films and big ones alike enjoyed a strong box-office weekend. But whom to thank? Could it be…Satan?

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

  1. The Devil Inside, $34.6 million, first week
  2. Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, $20.5 million; $170.2 million, fourth week
  3. Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, $14 million; $157.4 million, fourth week
  4. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, $11.3 million; $73.8 million, third week
  5. Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked, $ 9.5 million; $111.6 million, fourth week
  6. War Horse, $8.6 million; $56.8 million, third week
  7. We Bought a Zoo, $8.5 million; $56.5 million, third week
  8. The Adventures of Tintin, $6.6 million; $61.9 million, third week
  9. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, $5.5 million; $10.1 million, fifth week
  10. New Year’s Eve, $3.3 million; $52 million, fifth week
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