Superheroes Rule the Summer, and Riddick Revs the Fall

Vin Diesel's futuristic tough guy picks up where Tony Stark and Superman left off

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Vin Diesel wants to be a two-franchise star, in the mold of Sylvester Stallone (Rocky, Rambo) and Harrison Ford (Star Wars, Indiana Jones). Richard Riddick may never mount a serious box-office challenge to Diesel’s Dominic Toretto in the Fast & Furious series, but the actor loves the character — a farseeing refugee from the dystopian future — and traded some of his F&F chips to make a third episode.

Diesel’s faith paid off, modestly. Riddick, which follows the 2000 Pitch Black and The Chronicles of Riddick in 2004, won the first fall weekend at North American theaters with a solid $18.7 million, according to preliminary studio estimates. That figure is below the tallies of other post-Labor Day films: the $22.4 million for Contagion in 2011, the $26.65 million for Resident Evil: Afterlife in 2010 and the $23.4 million for Tyler Perry’s I Can Do Bad All By Myself in 2009. But on a thrifty $38-million budget, and given Diesel’s popularity abroad, extending the Riddick series was a safe gamble. It shouldn’t take another nine years for the next installment to appear.

(READ: Lily Rothman chatting with Vin Diesel on Riddick and Fast & Furious)

For most of the other films this first full September weekend, the weather was calm to chilly. Mainstream audiences continued to patronize the only two movies they paid much to see in August: the social-uplift exercise Lee Daniels’ The Butler (up to $91.9 million in four weeks) and the rowdy drug-smuggle comedy We’re the Millers ($123.8 million in five). And Latinos gave Instructions Not Included — with Mexican TV comic Eugenio Derbez as star, director, producer and cowriter — a bigger gross this week ($8.1 million) than its opening frame last week ($7.8 million), as the film expanded from 348 to 717 theaters. Most of the other top-10 entries were there by default.

[UPDATE: In final figures issued Monday, Riddick actually scored $19 million, up 2% from the predicted total, and The Butler tallied $8.4 million, down 6% from Sunday’s estimate. Blue Jasmine dropped from eighth to ninth place because Sony Pictures Classics overreported the weekend gross by 12.7% — possibly an all-time record for Sunday optimism.]

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

1. Riddick, $18.7 million, first weekend
2. Lee Daniels’ The Butler, $8.9 million; $91.9 million, fourth week
3. Instructions Not Included, $8.1 million; $20.3 million, second week
4. We’re the Millers, $7.9 million; $123.8 million, fifth week
5. Planes, $4.3 million; $79.3 million, fifth week
6. One Direction: This Is Us, $4.1 million; $24 million, second week
7. Elysium, $3.1 million; $85.1 million, fifth week
8. Blue Jasmine, $2.7 million; $25.4 million, seventh week
9. Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters, $2.5 million; $59.8 million, fifth week
10. The World’s End, $2.3 million; $21.7 million, third week

A LAST LOOK AT SUMMER IN THE STATES

After a lackluster winter and spring, the summer box office paid off big, but on a bigger investment. The period from the first weekend in May to the last weekend in August brought $4.76 billion in domestic revenue, up 8% from the former record-holder, 2011. Ticket prices were higher, but more tickets were sold — 593 million, the most since 2007.

To make more, Hollywood had to spend more. Three of the four top-grossing pictures (Iron Man Three, Man of Steel and Monsters University) cost at least $200 million to produce, with another $100 million or so for each to market. The only bargains among the top 10 were a frugally made animated sequel (Despicable Me 2), the usual token R-rated comedy, but this time with women (The Heat) and a rare horror movie to make it big in summer (The Conjuring).

(READ: Mary Pols on the summer’s one hit women’s comedy: The Heat)

The success of The Conjuring was a surprise, in a summer that otherwise followed form. Franchises ruled — the top six earners were either sequels, prequels or relaunches — and the season was bizarrely front-loaded. The Conjuring was the only top-10 movie released after the July 4 holiday, and even Warner Bros., the film’s ecstatic distributor, would agree that was a fluke.

A hefty price tag was no guarantee of success, as proved by the ignominious numbers for The Lone Ranger ($215 million budget, $88.9 million domestic gross), White House Down ($150 million, $72.8 million), After Earth ($130 million, $60.5 million) and the catastrophe known as R.I.P.D. ($130 million, $33.3 million). Each film boasted a major star — Johnny Depp, Channing Tatum, Will Smith and Ryan Reynolds, respectively — and each tanked.

(READ: Johnny Depp to retire after The Lone Ranger?)

Of the first seven films on the summer’s top 10, just two had stars who brought added value to their properties: Robert Downey, Jr. in Iron Man Three and Brad Pitt in World War Z. (Toward the bottom of the list, Leonardo DiCaprio gave a push to The Great Gatsby, and Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy were a tempting tandem for The Heat.) Sorry, Hollywood, but the business model of movie stars as reliable box-office magnets is soooo 20th-century.

Here are the big 10 of summer in North American theaters (with release dates and estimated production budgets), as reported by Box Office Mojo:

1. Iron Man Three (May 3), $408.9 million ($200 million)
2. Despicable Me 2 (July 3), $357.5 million ($76 million)
3. Man of Steel (June 14), $290.8 million ($225 million)
4. Monsters University (June 21), $265 million ($250 million)
5. Furious 6 (May 24), $238.7 million ($160 million)
6. Star Trek Into Darkness (May 16), $228.8 million ($190 million)
7. World War Z (June 21), $201.3 million ($190 million)
8. The Heat (June 28), $157.5 million ($43 million)
9. The Great Gatsby (May 10), $144.8 million ($105 million)
10. The Conjuring (July 19), $135.2 million ($20 million)

SPANNING THE GLOBE

Overseas: that’s where the big money is. Of the summer’s 10 worldwide winners, seven earned at least 60% of their money abroad. The foreign market is why there’ll always be an Ice Age: the 2012 episode, fourth in the series, gleaned an astonishing 82% of its global gross abroad. It’s also why superheroes, who speak the international language of POW! and ZOOM!, will keep on flourishing. Yes, including you, Wolverine.

Some potential action franchises are saved by the foreign revenue: Pacific Rim, the $190-million investment that struggled to reach $100 million in North America, earned more than $300 million abroad. So director Guillermo Del Toro may get his sequel after all.

(READ: Corliss’ review of Pacific Rim)

Foreign moviegoers are even more conservative than their U.S. counterparts. Eight of  this summer’s worldwide top 10 were franchise films. The exceptions: Pacific Rim and World War Z (which also earned enough money worldwide to stoke sequel talk). Overseas audiences especially love animated franchises. Monsters University and Despicable Me 2 are both approaching a $500-million offshore take.

(READ: Corliss’s review of World War Z)

Live-action comedies don’t fare so well in foreign climes. Domestic hits like The Heat, Grown Ups 2 and We’re the Millers won’t come close to earning half their worldwide income abroad. The one anomaly is The Hangover Part III. A relative disappointment at home ($112.2 million), it has earned a robust and unfathomable $238.8 million overseas, leading to an alarming possibility: The Hangover Part IV.

Here are the top 10 global winners, in millions of dollars, with domestic grosses, then foreign revenue (followed by the percentage that was earned abroad) and the worldwide total, as reported by Box Office Mojo:

1. Iron Man Three, $408.9m, $805.7m (66%), $1,214.6m
2. Despicable Me 2, $357.5m, $475.2m (57%), $832.7
3. Furious 6, $238.7m, $549.3m (70%), $788m
4. Monsters University, $265m, $459.4m (63%), $724.4m
5. Man of Steel, $290.8m, $367m (56%), $657.8m
6. World War Z, $201.3m, $335m (62.5%), $536.3m
7. Star Trek Into Darkness, $228.8m, $234m (51%), $462.8m
8. Pacific Rim, $100.5m, $304.4m (75%), $404.9m
9. The Wolverine, $129.4m, $232.2 (64%), $361.7m
10. The Hangover Part III, $112.2m, $238.8m (68%), $351m

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