Women, that disadvantaged American majority, seized the means of consumption at the box office this weekend. As moms, they took their kids to the movies, for a second week, and sustained the top standing of Pixar’s Monsters University, which earned $46.2 million at the North American box office, according to preliminary studio estimates. On Ladies’ Night Out, they flocked to The Heat, the R-rated girl-cop comedy starring Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy. Finishing second with a strong $40 million, The Heat lured an audience that was 65% female.
In third place, with $29.8 million, was the holdover hit World War Z, the rare zombie adventure to attract a majority (51%) of women; thanks to Hollywood heartthrob Brad Pitt. Even the weekend’s one action-film underachiever, White House Down, starring man-meat Channing Tatum, had a constituency that was 49% female. Just not big enough. Its $25.7 million plopped the POTUS doomsday saga in fourth place, ahead of Man of Steel’s $20.8 million — making this one of the few three-day weekends in which five movies earned more than $20 million.
[MONDAY UPDATE: Final figures released this afternoon show the two new films a few percentage points below their predicted totals: The Heat at $39.1 million, White House Down at $24.9 million. Monsters University remained in first place with $45.6 million. Both World War Z and Man of Steel finished less than $50,000 below their Sunday estimates.]
Yet the $162.5 million cumulative take of those five films — four of them with a budget of at least $150 million — couldn’t match the $164.8 million rung up this same weekend last year by a more modest quintet: Ted, Magic Mike, Pixar’s Brave, Madea’s Witness Protection Program and DreamWorks Animation’s Madagascar 3. Only the two cartoon features cost more than $50 million; and the Tatum-starring Magic Mike, produced for a preposterously frugal $7 million, grossed $39.1 million — nearly as much as the Bullock-McCarthy comedy and 50% more than Tatum’s current pairing with Jamie Foxx. Does the star’s bevy of femme fans prefer him as a lover, not a fighter? Or was the Tea Party contingent frightened away by the notion of a black President with a gun?
(READ: Mary Pols’ review of White House Down)
White House Down proved a significant disappointment for Hollywood’s “Master of Disaster”, director Roland Emmerich. His 1996 Independence Day opened to $50.2 million, then notched $306.2 million at the domestic box office and $817.4 million worldwide — nearly $1.5 billion today. In real dollars, Emmerich’s 2009 world’s-end drama 2012 amassed $800 million, The Day After Tomorrow (2004) $700 million; and the 1998 Godzilla almost $650 million.
White House Down suffered by following another embattled-President thriller, Olympus Has Fallen, which opened to $30.4 million back in March. It also failed to match the $27.5-million first weekend for Will Smith’s recent science-fiction flop After Earth. The White House Down patrons, 61% of whom were 25 years or older, liked what they saw: they gave the movie an A-minus in a CinemaScore survey. Some may have come after seeing Foxx’s “Channing All Over Your Tatum,” a video that went viral after being introduced on Jimmy Kimmel’s late-night show. Foxx is supposed to be planning a sequel to his video, but unless the movie matches the overseas success that usually greets Emmerich pictures, there’ll be no White House Down 2.
(READ: Jay Newton-Small on What’s Bad and Good About the Spate of White House Destruction Movies)
A sequel to The Heat was in the works long before this movie opened. That’s how confident the bosses at 20th Century-Fox were that Bullock and McCarthy would strike sparks with the simplest genre-switch: casting two likable women in a typically guys-only buddy cop comedy. Budgeted at a medium-low $43 million, the film registered an A-minus CinemaScore with its gynocentric, older viewers (67% over 25). Director Paul Feig lent the movie the light, rowdy touch he had employed for Bridesmaids, and presto, a palpable hit — the biggest opening number for either actress. With no competition for female-angled fare in the coming weeks, The Heat could stay warm for most of the summer.
(READ: Mary Pols’ review of The Heat by subscribing to TIME)
Further down the list, Man of Steel isn’t showing great legs beneath those blue tights; the Superman epic should be higher than fifth place in only its third weekend. But it’s earned close to $250 million at the domestic box office and has chalked up $271.7 million abroad, for a $520.4 million global total. That’s well above the $391.1 million that the 2006 Superman Returns earned in its entire run. If the new picture reaches $700 million, Warner Bros. may greenlight a sequel, and perhaps a Justice League spinoff.
(READ: Corliss’s review of Man of Steel)
That’s Hollywood: a town of high rollers. Never mind that The Heat will be a moneymaker, or that Seth Rogen’s end-of-days farce This Is the End has approached $75 million in its third week, or that the magician caper Now You See Me cracked the $100-million threshold in its fifth. (On the foreign-indie circuit, Pedro Almodóvar’s très-gay airplane farce I’m So Excited! opened to an encouraging $120,000 on five screens.) Moguls prefer to gamble a few hundred million dollars on the chance of spurring a worldwide franchise tentpole, rather than play it safe with more modestly budgeted films.
(READ: Corliss’s review of I’m So Excited!)
The problem is that too many big boys are in the game, especially in a summer like this one, crowded with mega-expensive action behemoths. Each superproduction may spend a weekend as box-office champ, only to get mauled a few days later when the next one debuts. If the glut continues, this weekly blockbuster cage match could lead to an economic bloodbath — Hollywood harakiri.
Here are the Sunday estimates of this weekend’s top-grossing pictures in North American theaters, as reported by Box Office Mojo:
1. Monsters University, $46.2 million; $171 million, second week
2. The Heat, $40 million, first weekend
3. World War Z, $29.8 million; $123.7 million, second week
4. White House Down, $25.7 million, first weekend
5. Man of Steel, $20.8 million; $248.7 million, third week
6. This Is the End, $8.7 million; $74.7 million, third week
7. Now You See Me, $5.5 million; $104.7 million, fifth week
8. Furious 6, $2.4 million; $233.3 million, sixth week
9. Star Trek Into Darkness, $2 million; $220.5 million, seventh week
10. The Internship, $1.4 million; $41.7 million, fourth week