Back in the ’60s, when manager Casey Stengel shepherded the newborn New York Mets to four consecutive last-place seasons — in a 10-team league! — he would famously ask, “Can’t anybody here play this game?” That was the question at this weekend’s box office: four movies opened and none hit even a modest $15 million, including the Clint Eastwood baseball drama Trouble With the Curve. But on a weekend that began with three American League teams, the Yankees, Orioles and Athletics, just a game apart from one another with 13 days left in baseball’s regular season (Let’s! Go! A’s!), the box office did produce a close race — of mediocrity.
In preliminary estimates of North American ticket sales issued today, the Eastwood movie was in third place, less than $300,000 behind the two “winners” — the psychological thriller House at the End of the Street, starring Jennifer Lawrence, and the cop procedural End of Watch, with Jake Gyllenhaal — both claiming exactly $13 million. Dredd, the fourth debut film in wide release, flopped into sixth place with $6.3 million. The true first-place finisher will not be determined until Monday’s publication of the actual Friday-to-Sunday figures.
(READ: Glen Levy on Dredd and the weekend’s other new movies)
[UPDATE: Final grosses released Monday show that the weekend race had no photo finish; they also suggest that the studios’ designated predictors had trouble with the stats. End of Watch earned $13.15 million, a shade over the estimate;, to land comfortably in the top position. But House at the End of the Street’s final tally of $12.3 million was more than $700,000 below the estimated figure, and the actual number for Trouble with the Curve, $12.2 million, was $400,000 off the early number. The only variable for the prognosticators was guessing on how much business their films would do on Sunday; in both cases, the forecasters erred at least 20% on the optimistic side. Further down the list, The Master took in $4.4 million for the weekend, not the reported $5 million; The Weinstein Company estimate of its Sunday revenue exceeded the actual figure by more than 50%. Many people whom the studios thought would go to the movies that day stayed home. Maybe they were watching some free slapstick entertainment: the scab referees’ officiating of NFL games.]
(READ: Corliss’s review of The Master)
But the big picture was clear enough. Among a dour mix of genres lacking a single live-action comedy, the top 10 movies gave exhibitors little to smile about. So far, this is the first September since 2007 in which no weekend’s total box-office revenue has hit at least $100 million.
Indeed, if this had been the first fall weekend of 2011, all the new films would be fighting for second place. Last year at this time The Lion King topped the charts, in the second week of its 3-D rerelease, and the next four slots were filled by another baseball movie (the Brad Pitt Moneyball), a thriller with a teen-fave star (The Twilight Saga’s Taylor Lautner in Abduction) a crime drama (Killer Elite) and a kid-friendly inspirational (Dolphin Tale). That quartet opened to $59 million — with Moneyball and Dolphin Tale eventually earning more than $70 million at domestic theaters — while the four debut movies this weekend took in just $45 million. And the Finding Nemo 3-D reissue, which Disney surely hoped would duplicate The Lion King’s success, has amassed less in 10 days than the “hakuna matata” movie did in its first three.
(LIST: Find The Lion King among the all-TIME 25 Animated Features)
Industry analysts had predicted that the weekend would go to Trouble With the Curve, the tale of a veteran minor-league scout trying to keep his job and make peace with his rebellious daughter (Amy Adams). Eastwood had starred in only two other films over the past decade, Million Dollar Baby and Gran Torino, both going on to break the $100-million mark in North American theaters. At 82, the cowboy emeritus was possibly the oldest actor to star in a big Hollywood picture. On the Thompson on Hollywood blog, stats sultan Tom Brueggemann asked, “Has there ever been a wide release with a lead over 80?” (One answer: Jessica Tandy, then 80½, in the 1989 Driving Miss Daisy.) Trouble may still make the playoffs; Clint’s core audience, which isn’t that much younger than he is, tends not to hustle out to the multiplex the first few days. But the movie opened below even the modest forecast of its studio, Warner Bros. Those who did go gave Trouble a gentleman’s B-plus in the CinemaScore survey of early attendees. Or do we mean retirees?
(READ: Corliss’s review of Trouble With the Curve)
House at the End of the Street attracted exactly the opposite demographic: 70% under 25 years of age and 61% female. The PG-13-rated horror drama, about a mother and daughter (Elizabeth Shue and Lawrence) who move next door to the site of a multiple murder, was made nearly two years ago, when its star was just 20 and had yet to shoot The Hunger Games. Capitalizing on her surge in popularity, and pulling a B rating on Cinemascore — with an A-minus from those under 18 — House will shortly earn back its meager production budget of about $10 million.
(READ: Corliss on Jennifer Lawrence in the new Silver Linings Playbook)
Even more frugal was the $7-million budget for End of Watch, which applies the found-footage tactic to the story of two heroic cops (Gyllenhaal and Michael Peña) patrolling the hellscape of South Los Angeles. Writer-director David Ayer, a specialist in L.A. crime dramas (Training Day, Street Kings), gave the movie a fauxto-realist vibe that appealed to many critics and more than a few viewers. The first-weekend audience, of which 69% was under 35 and 54% male, rewarded End of Watch with an A-minus on CinemaScore.
(READ: Corliss’s review of End of Watch)
The highest per-screen average among the top-10 finishers was attained by The Master, Paul Thomas Anderson’s drama of a cultish sorcerer (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and his wayward apprentice (Joaquin Phoenix). Expanding from last week’s five theaters — where it established a 2012 record for best limited opening — to 788 screens, the movie took in a solid if not masterly $5 million. Almost as impressive was the $244,000 gleaned in just four venues by The Perks of Being a Wallflower. Stephen Chbosky’s film version of his 1999 best-seller about being young, geeky and wonderful in Pittsburgh is poised to be a solid art-house hit, and Emma Watson’s first prime role outside of the Harry Potter series gives the film significant crossover potential.
Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel, a doc on the Vogue editor and fashion doyenne, earned a chic $64,200 at three theaters. That $21,400 per-screen average was about nine times as high as the PSA for Dredd, a 3-D adaptation of the comic-book series by John Wagner and Carlos Ezquerra, and an attempted atonement for Sylvester Stallone’s Judge Dredd in 1995. That so-called atrocity opened to $12.3 million weekend (when tickets were much cheaper) and earned $113.5 million worldwide. The digitized reboot, which received an eh? B rating from CinemaScore, will be lucky to hit a tenth of that in North America.
(READ: Corliss’s review of the 1995 Judge Dredd)
Trying a do-over of a Dreddful movie, and still flopping at it, brings to mind another Stengel quote. “Been in this game one hundred years,” the mighty Casey mused, “but I see new ways to lose ‘em I never knew existed before.”
Here are the extremely tentative Sunday estimates of this weekend’s top-grossing pictures in North American theaters, as reported by Box Office Mojo:
1. End of Watch, $13 million, first weekend
2. House at the End of the Street, $13 million, first weekend
3. Trouble with the Curve, $12.7 million, first weekend
4. Finding Nemo, $9.4 million; $30 million, second week of rerelease
5. Resident Evil: Retribution, $6.7 million; $33.5 million, second week
6. Dredd, $6.3 million, first weekend
7. The Master, $5 million; $6.1 million, second week
8. The Possession, $2.6 million; $45.65 million, fourth week
9. Lawless, $2.3 million; $34.5 million, fourth week
10. ParaNorman, $2.3 million; $52.6 million, sixth week