Slay What? Pricey Jack the Giant Slayer Earns Few Beans

'John Carter,' all is forgiven! Another expensive fairy tale underwhelms, as the 2013 box office continues to stagger.

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Warner Bros. Pictures

When is a No. 1 movie really a No One? When it earns $28 million in its first three days but cost nearly $200 million to produce. Those were the bad-news numbers for Jack the Giant Slayer, the megabudgeted fairy tale from X-Men director Bryan Singer. Winning the weekend at North American theaters, according to preliminary studio reports, was little consolation to Singer or his sponsors at Warner Bros. Jack could not even match the $30.2 million rung up in its opening frame last March by another costly fantasy: Disney’s notorious flop John Carter. As the marauding giant might growl at Jack’s producers: “Fee high, low sum.”

Projected as the year’s first 3-D tentpole hit, and hoping to lure both the action-film crowd and families looking for story-book thrills, Jack had to settle for the alterkocker demographic: the first-weekend audience, which awarded the film an OK B-plus grade on the CinemaScore survey, was 55% male and 56% over the age of 25. Warner Bros. postponed the movie’s release from last summer to allow for cooler visual effects; the studio may also have anticipated a boost from leading man Nicholas Hoult, the star of last month’s well-received zombie rom-com Warm Bodies. The hefty investment will need to be recouped from foreign ticket sales; Jack opened solidly in a few Asian markets this weekend. At the domestic box office, it’s likely to be creamed next weekend by Disney’s Wizard of Oz prequel, Oz the Great and Powerful.

(READ: Mary Pols’ review of Jack the Giant Slayer)

Beans, either magical or monetary, were hard to find at the domestic box office. As paltry as Jack’s swag was, it still surpassed the total weekend grosses of the next three films: returning champ Identity Thief and two newcomers, 21 and Over and The Last Exorcism Part II. The horror sequel opened at $8 million, 60% below the debut gross of the Aug. 2010 original, and received a defamatory C-minus CinemaScore. 21 and Over, written and directed by bad-comedy specialists Jon Lucas and Scott Moore (they scripted Four Christmases,Ghosts of Girlfriends Past, the first Hangover and The Change-Up), limped to a $9-million opening weekend. Made for a thrifty $13 million, and cadging a “B” CinemaScore, the movie reached its target viewers — 73% under the age of 25 — but not nearly enough of them. Looks like it’s 21 Over and Out.

(READ: Mary Pols’ review of The Last Exorcism)

How bad was business this weekend? The submarine drama Phantom, starring Ed Harris and David Duchovny, opened in 1,118 theaters and earned only about $460,000, for a per-screen average of $41 — four of five tickets in each venue for the whole weekend. Those are practically Oggieloves numbers. And yet the big picture is even gloomier. The top dozen movies earned less than the winning film the same weekend last year: Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax, which ushered in March 2012 with a $70.2 million haul.

(READ: The historic flop of Oogieloves in the BIG Balloon Adventure)

Total box-office revenue was down 37% from the same time last year — the sixth consecutive frame, following year-to-year weekend dips of 12%, 30%, 46%, 17% and 23%. (The 2012 weekends were all up, up, up over 2011.)  Except for the blooming of one solid hit, Identity Thief, this winter’s landscape is charred and scarred. No 2013 film has enjoyed a first weekend of as much as $35 million; by early March last year, The Lorax, The Vow and Safe House had opened above, or way above, that number. Six 2012 movies had debut weekends above $25 million; this year, just Identity Thief and the underperforming Jack the Giant Slayer. Last year The Lorax, Safe House and The Vow all scampered to $100-million grosses; this time, only Identity Thief has reached the nine-digit mark; Mama is a distant second, at $70.9 million.

(READ: Mary Pols’ review of this year’s one hit movie, Identity Thief)

New indie movies have also been languishing, as specialty audiences have spent the last months feasting on the high-nutrition value of such upscale Oscar contenders as Silver Linings Playbook (still occupying the top 10 in its 16th week), Zero Dark Thirty, Les Misérables and Lincoln. The one foreign-language nominee for Best Picture, Michael Haneke’s Amour, didn’t break through to a wide audience. At $5.9 million, it’s still about $1.2 million below the final gross of last year’s Foreign Language Oscar winner, the Iranian A Separation.

(READ: Corliss’s wrapup of the 2013 Oscar ceremony)

So this weekend could be seen as the start of the indie movie year. The one pedigree debut — Stoker, the psychological thriller directed by South Korean master Park Chan-wook and starring Mia Wasikowska, Nicole Kidman and Matthew Goode — opened to a promising $158,822 in seven theaters, for a $22,689 per-screen average. Stoker should easily top the $707,000 North American gross of Park’s Oldboy (scheduled for an American remake with Josh Brolin and Samuel L. Jackson, as directed by Spike Lee). The movie has already amassed $2.4 million in early release abroad.

(READ: Corliss’s review of Stoker)

Elsewhere, indiewise, nothing connected. The much-hyped hunger-in-America doc A Place at the Table, which merited a rave from Jon Stewart when he interviewed the film’s directors on The Daily Show, proved unappetizing to audiences: it gleaned a meager $84,000 on 35 screens. Leviathan, an exposé of the North Atlantic fishing industry, managed $10,300 at one theater; and the Oscar-nominated drama War Witch took in a bit less than that, $10,300, at two theaters.

(READ: Mary Pols’ review of A Place at the Table)

Mainstream or indie, times are tough. It’s as if moviegoers have taken a tip from the U.S. government Sequester and laid themselves off.

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

1. Jack the Giant Slayer, $28 million, first weekend
2. Identity Thief, $9.7 million; $107.4 million, fourth week
3. 21 and Over, $9 million, first weekend
4. The Last Exorcism Part II, $8 million, first weekend
5. Snitch, $7.7 million; $24.4 million, second week
6. Safe Haven, $6.3 million; $57.1 million, third week
7. Escape from Planet Earth, $6.3 million $43.2 million, third week
8. Silver Linings Playbook, $5.9 million; $115.5 million, 16th week
9. A Good Day to Die Hard, $4.5 million; $59.6 million, third week
10. Dark Skies, $3.6 million; $13.5 million, second week