A Jackie Robinson Home Run: 42 Scores Big

The story of the first black ballplayer in the modern major leagues enjoys the strongest ever opening for a baseball movie

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D. Stevens / © 2013 Legendary Pictures Productions LLC

In this weekend’s numbers game, the box-office box score reads like this:

42: 27
5: 15

In English, that translates to a lopsided win for 42, the inspirational biopic about Baseball Hall of Famer Jackie Robinson, over Scary Movie 5, the latest and likely last in the franchise of horror-film spoofs. 42 far exceeded the expectations of box-office handicappers to claim $27.25 million for this weekend’s top slot in North American theaters, according to Sunday estimates by Warner Bros., the Robinson film’s delighted distributor. Scary Movie 5, from Weinstein/Dimension, underperformed predictions by about the same amount: it opened to just $15.1 million.

[MONDAY UPDATE: The final score, according to the “actual” box-office figures issued today, was $27.5 million for 42, $14.2 million for Scary Movie 5. The No. 1 film did better, by about $250,000, and the No. 2 did worse, by nearly a million. The stats for all other top-10 pictures were close to their Sunday estimates except for The Place Beyond the Pines, whose actual $3.865 million was 6% less than predicted. Among the micro-releases,Terrence Malick’s To the Wonder grossed only $116,551 — a steep 11% below the $130,000 estimate.]

On Apr. 15, 1947, Robinson trotted onto Brooklyn’s Ebbets Field as the first African-American in the 20th century to play major-league baseball. Because of his impact and the heroic stoicism with which he bore racial insults from some players and managers, the baseball hierarchy retired Robinson’s uniform number, 42, in 1997. (Today, only the Yankees’ Mariano Rivera, whose major-league career began in 1995, still has that number on his back.) Tomorrow is the annual Jackie Robinson Day, when all players wear 42 in his honor.

(MORE: Mary Pols’ Review of 42)

Enlisting Robinson’s 90-year-old widow Rachel as a consultant, producer Thomas Tull and writer-director Brian Helgeland (who scripted L.A. Confidential and Mystic River) took a risk by casting the little-known Chadwick Boseman as Robinson, with Harrison Ford as the ballplayer’s mentor, Brooklyn Dodgers boss Branch Rickey. Boseman was certainly less famous than the man who took the role in the 1950 B-movie The Jackie Robinson Story: Robinson. By playing himself, Robinson proved his trailblazer status not only in baseball but also in movies, as one of the first blacks to star in a racially mixed film. (Minor Watson played Rickey, and Ruby Dee, still going strong today at 88, was Rachel.)

(MORE: Sean Gregory’s Profile of 42 star Chadwick Boseman)

The gamble on Boseman paid off: 42 registered the all-time top opening for a baseball movie. (The bar wasn’t that high, since the previous No. 1 was the 2006 Rob Schneider farce The Benchwarmers. Then again, Boseman also beat Brad Pitt’s first weekend with Moneyball.) Attracting the audience demographic of The Help or a Tyler Perry film — largely female (52%), older (59% over the age of 35) and black — 42 snagged a sterling A-plus rating from early attendees surveyed by the CinemaScore polling firm. Golden word of mouth helps spur business, so the movie could spend the next few weeks (to quote Brooklyn Dodgers’ broadcaster Red Barber) “walkin’ in the tall cotton.”

Sinkin’ in the big ugly: that was the fate of Scary Movie 5, whose previous chapters had grossed more than $800 million worldwide, with three of the four opening to more than $40 million domestic. The first two Scarys (R-rated) were the work of the Wayans brothers, the next two (PG-13) from veteran spoofmeister David Zucker, of the Hot Shots! and Naked Gun comedy franchises. Back as producer and co-writer, Zucker enlisted Lindsay Lohan and Charlie Sheen to play themselves, perhaps as part of some court-ordered community-service sentence, and managed to parody such recent horror movies as Mama and last week’s Evil Dead remake. Scary 5 was as up to date as a Saturday Night Live skit and, to most reviewers, no funnier — an abysmal 6% rating on the Rotten Tomatoes website of critics’ reviews.

(MORE: Why Jackie Robinson Still Matters)

The real reason for the PG-13 movie’s subnormal activity may have been the January release of A Haunted House, Marlon Wayans’ own, R-rated horror burlesque, which opened to a more solid $18.1 million. An instant remake of a parody was almost guaranteed to give audiences a feeling of déjà déjà vu. And that translates from the French into the Brooklynese as: fugeddaboudit.

Elsewhere in the top 10, The Croods held steady in third place. After 3½ weeks, the Stone Age family comedy has already topped both the domestic and the foreign gross that DreamWorks’ previous animated feature, Rise of the Guardians, earned in its entire run. Of the two kidnap-the-President thrillers now on screens, G.I. Joe: Retaliations $102.4 million is ahead of Olympus Has Fallen’s $81.9 million. The Hasbro-toy-soldier movie has also earned a robust $168.3 million abroad.

But the big surprise was the rise of a star-studded art film, Derek Cianfrance’s The Place Beyond the Pines, to 10th place, with a $4.1 million gross, though it is playing in only 514 theaters (about a seventh of the number showing Scary Movie 5). The hunk power of Ryan Gosling and Bradley Cooper could make this brooding, sprawling epic the year’s first indie hit.

(READ: Mary Pols’ review of The Place Beyond the Pines)

The $7,938-per-screen average of The Place Beyond the Pines was also greater than the $7,647 PSA of To the Wonder, Terrence Malick’s experimental drama starring Ben Affleck, Rachel McAdams, Olga Kurylenko, Javier Bardem and a lot of pretty scenery. Problem is, To the Wonder is on just 17 screens, and the reported $130,000 suggests little interest in this latest effort from the mysterious Malick. Though the movie had some enthusiastic supporters, including the late Roger Ebert in his final review, the general critical response was tepid: 41% on Rotten Tomatoes. Malick’s last film, The Tree of Life, garnered prizes galore, including a nomination for the Best Picture Oscar, but it looks as though, critically and popularly, this one will be no wonder.

(MORE: Corliss’s Review of To the Wonder)

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

1. 42, $27.25 million, first weekend
2. Scary Movie 5, $15,1 million, first weekend
3. The Croods, $13.2 million; $142.5 million, fourth week
4. G.I. Joe: Retaliation, $10.8 million; $102.4 million, third week
5. Evil Dead, $9.5 million; $41.5 million, second week
6. Jurassic Park, $8.8 million; $31.9 million, second week of rerelease
7. Olympus Has Fallen, $7.3 million; $81.9 million, fourth week
8. Oz the Great and Powerful, $4.9 million; $219.4 million, sixth week
9. Tyler Perry’s Temptation: Confessions of a Marriage Counselor, $4.5 million; $45.4 million, third week
10. The Place Beyond the Pines, $4.1 million; $5.5 million, third week