The Vow Is Wow on a Lovely Valentine’s Weekend

Denzel Washington and The Rock also score well, and even Jar Jar Binks finds a few fans, as moviegoers plight their troth big-time

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Sony Pictures

It’s as if your beloved promised you a little Valentine’s present and gave you the Hope Diamond. The courtier was the American moviegoer, the recipient was Hollywood, and the gift was a record-breaking weekend, with four films opening above $20 million each at North American theaters. The top two pictures — the romantic drama The Vow and the Denzel Washington spy thriller Safe House — in the $40-million range, while Journey 2: The Mysterious Island and the 3-D reissue of Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace finished in the mid-$20-millions, according to preliminary studio estimates.

Not since the last week of 2008, when Marley and Me, Bedtime Stories, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and Valkyrie all topped $20 million in their debut weekend, had a quartet of films opened so robustly. This was no school’s-out holiday period, just a nice little February frame between Super Bowl Sunday and the extended President’s Day weekend, when want-see movies met spare-cash consumers. The overall box office tally, which was about 30% higher than the same time last year, has been up every weekend in 2012.

Scheduling a doomed-love story like The Vow for Valentine’s Day is as natural to Hollywood as slotting a bombs-bursting-in-air action film for July 4. The new film, about a woman who forgets she’s married, and must fall in love with her husband all over again, didn’t have the built-in fan base of a best-seller-spawned franchise like The Twilight Saga. But director and co-writer Michael Sucsy cannily paired two young stalwarts of mush movies: Rachel McAdams, the wife of The Time Traveler’s Wife, and Channing Tatum, the John of Dear John. The women’s audience, which remained strong as young males went AWOL last year, showed up en masse: 72% of The Vow‘s early customers were female, and 55% younger than 25. They liked it so-so — a B rating, as polled by the CinemaScore survey company — and kick-started the movie, which cost just $30 million to produce, toward early profitability.

(MORE: See Mary Pols’ review of The Vow)

Denzel Washington projects cost more ($85 million for Safe House) but usually entice all kinds of moviegoers into ‘plexes around the world. As a wily CIA agent who’s gone rogue and goes on the run in South Africa with his reluctant, Defiant Ones-ish partner Ryan Reynolds, the 57-year-old star enjoyed his second-best opening ever, after American Gangster back in 2007. Safe House split its first-weekend audience 50-50 by gender, with a slightly older demographic (62% above the age of 25) and the ethnic breakdown — 38% African American, 31% Caucasian and 23% Hispanic — of a major-league baseball team in the early ’90s.

(MORE: See Corliss’s review of Safe House)

Journey 2, a sequel to Journey to the Center of the Earth, casts the same young actor, Josh Hutchinson, as the main kid, but in a Modern Family switch gives him a new dad: Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson replacing the first film’s Brendan Fraser. The new film beat the 2008 Journey on its opening weekend, $27.55 million to $21 million — the jacked-up 3-D prices helped — but it will need sturdy legs to top the original’s $101.7 million domestic total (and $242 million worldwide gross). The Rock has the punch; has he got the staying power?

(MORE: See Mary Pols’s review of Journey 2: The Mysterious Island)

The re-release of the 1999 Phantom Menace speaks less to the enthusiasm of Star Wars fans — who avidly awaited the coming of the first episode in 16 years, then famously reviled the prequel when they saw it — than to George Lucas’s need to keep toying with and, some would say, tainting the series that has consumed the bulk of his filmmaking career. Gussying up the move with 3-D frills, but stubbornly refusing to cut the Jar Jar Binks scenes, Lucas found about as many patrons for the re-Menace-ing as he did for last month’s Red Tails, the Tuskegee Airmen bio-pic he produced. Maybe the franchise’s fans were giving themselves an anti-Valentine’s gift: they wanted to see if they still kinda hated the movie, or really really hated it.

(SEE: The 10 Things We Still Kinda Hate About The Phantom Menace)

The industry’s response to this suddenly surging audience could have been “Oh, you shouldn’t have!” Instead, it was probably “It’s about time.” Like a weepie film’s dying heroine, the 2011 box office languished in all but the summer months; so improving on the grosses of early last year, when not a single film opened to as much as $40 million, is no big whoop. In fact, the $130.5 million projected for this weekend’s top foursome is still well below take for the same weekend two years ago, when three new films — the rom-com Valentine’s Day, the horror film The Wolfman and the kids’ epic Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief — combined with the indomitable Avatar, still a giant in its ninth week, for $142.6 million. (Housekeeping note: that figure is for the Friday-to-Sunday portion of a President’s Day weekend.)

Oh, the Hollywood moguls are grateful for the Valentine bonanza. They just want to see a lot more love before they believe that this new romance is the real thing.

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

  1. The Vow, $41.7 million, first weekend
  2. Safe House, $39.3 million, first weekend
  3. Journey 2: The Mysterious Island, $27.55 million, first weekend
  4. Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace, $23 million, first weekend
  5. Chronicle, $12.3 million; $40.2 million, second week
  6. The Woman in Black, $10.3 million; $35.5 million, second week
  7. The Grey, $5.1 million; $42.8 million, third week
  8. Big Miracle, $3.9 million; $13.2 million, second week
  9. The Descendants, $3.5 million; $70.7 million, 13th week
  10. Underworld Awakening, $2.5 million; $58.9 million, fourth week