Warm Bodies was the only new movie showing signs of life on a moribund Super Bowl Weekend. The “zom-rom-com” earned $19.5 million, according to preliminary estimates, to win the weekend at North American theaters. Staggering into sixth place like, well, a zombie was the Sylvester Stallone thriller Bullet to the Head, which could summon only a humiliating $4.5 million. In all, business was down about 15% from last year’s Super Bowl weekend. With poor showings from most new films, 2013 is starting to look like the Jacksonville Jaguars of box-office years.
The popularity of the Big Game has long convinced Hollywood studios to release movies aimed at young viewers, especially women — the demographic least likely to spend Friday and Saturday at home waiting for Sunday afternoon. Last year on this weekend, two films — the found-footage teen horror caper Chronicle (for which 60% of the audience was under the age of 25) and the Gothic suspenser The Woman in Black (59% female, 57% under 25) — topped the $20-million mark. On the 2011 Super Bowl weekend, the teen-scary Roommate (65% female, 61% under 21) headed the list with $15 million. And in 2010 the weepie Dear John broke Avatar‘s seven-week streak at No. 1 with a Super Bowl stash of $30.5 million. The top-grossing picture on NFL Championship Sunday is the Miley Cyrus Hannah Montana concert movie in 2008, at $31.5 million; the only recent males-only movie to claim a Super Bowl victory was the Liam Neeson Taken, earning $24.7 million in 2009.
(READ: Sean Gregory on the possible extinction of the Super Bowl)
Adapting Isaac Marion’s 2010 zombie romance, director-screenwriter Jonathan Levine found critical approval (77% “fresh” on Rotten Tomatoes) in a mashup of George Romero’s Living Dead movies and William Shakespeare‘s Romeo and Juliet; this time Romeo’s a zombie (named R), and before falling for Julie (Juliet) he eats the brains of her erstwhile boy friend. Warm Bodies, which more than a few reviewers retitled “Romero and Juliet,” pulled a decent B-plus rating in CinemaScore’s survey of early attendees, who met the desired breakdown of 60% female and 65% under 25. Yet, if the current estimate holds, it will be only the second Super Bowl Weekend winner of the past six years (after Roommate) to open to less than $20 million. Whether this is an indication of the movie’s modest reach, or a dire portent of box-office slippage from the robust earnings of early 2012 to the pallid revenue of the year before, is a question that makes the moguls reach for their Lexapro.
(READ: Mary Pols’ review of Warm Bodies)
[UPDATE: In final weekend figures, issued Monday, Warm Bodies was credited with $20.4 million, well above its Sunday estimate. The No. 2 film, Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters, at $9.4 million, also did marginally better than first reported. Coming up short was Silver Linings Playbook, whose actual gross of $7.7 million was about 5% under The Weinstein Company's chronically optimistic predictions.]
Looking at the low-caliber returns for Bullet to the Head, Stallone might reach for his AK-47 — except that the star of many a shoot-’em-up has publicly called for a ban on assault weapons. Not that the 66-year-old Mr. Muscles will be resolving his future melodramas with an appeal to U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, but Sly has to wonder if he can reach large audiences only by rounding up other AARP tough guys for still more episodes of The Expendables.
Bullet to the Head, directed by ’70s action auteur Walter Hill (The Driver, The Warriors), received a B-minus CinemaScore from its audience of mostly males (60%) and alterkockers (81% over 25). Worse yet, the film’s opening-weekend take was even less than the $6.3 million that Stallone’s fellow sexagenarian stud Arnold Schwarzenegger earned two weekends ago with The Last Stand. The two aging behemoths are set to costar later this year in The Tomb — a movie that, given their recent box-office poison pellets, might benefit from a change of title.
(READ: Corliss’s review of The Last Stand)
The only good news for Hollywood came in the strong holds for Oscar contenders, notably the non-zom rom-com Silver Linings Playbook, which finished third this weekend to raise its 12-week earnings above $80 million. The get-bin-Laden docudrama Zero Dark Thirty, in only its third week of wide release, is close behind at $77.8 million. And slots eight through 11 this weekend were filled with four other Academy Award Best Picture nominees — Django Unchained, Les Misérables, Lincoln and Argo — all of which have amassed more than $100 million at the North American box office.
(READ: The morning line on this year’s Oscar nominations)
Life of Pi, which is 14th on the weekend list, has also passed the $100-million domestic mark. But the movie’s real success is abroad, where it has earned a phenomenal $442.4 million, or more than the combined foreign revenue for Django, Les Mis, Lincoln and Argo. Hollywood may be betting on Argo, whose wins from the Producers, Directors and Screen Actors guilds make it a nearly prohibitive favorite for the Best Picture Oscar. But the rest of the world has put its money on Pi.
(READ: Corliss’s review of Life of Pi)
Here are the Sunday estimates of this weekend’s top-grossing pictures in North American theaters, as reported by Box Office Mojo:
1. Warm Bodies, $19.5 million, first weekend
2. Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters, $9.2 million; $34.5 million, second week
3. Silver Linings Playbook, $8.1 million; $80.4 million, 12th week
4. Mama, $6.7 million; $58.3 million, third week
5. Zero Dark Thirty, $5.3 million; $77.8 million, seventh week
6. Bullet to the Head, $4.5 million, first weekend
7. Parker, $3.2 million; $12.4 million, second week
8. Django Unchained, $3 million; $151 million, sixth week
9. Les Misérables, $2.4 million; $141.5 million, sixth week
10. Lincoln, $2.4 million; $170.8 million, 13th week
11. Argo, $2.1 million; $120.4 million, 17th week
12. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, $1.9 million; $296.2 million, eighth week
13. Gangster Squad, $1.9 million; $43.1 million, fourth week
14. Life of Pi, $1.8 million; $106.1 million, 11th week
15. Movie 43, $1.65 million; $7.7 million, second week