Puss in Boots Creeps to Halloweekend (and Hallo-weakened) Win

The DreamWorks cat-toon shakes off some spooky hexes — World Series Game 7 and a freak snowstorm — to play tricks on Justin Timberlake and Johnny Depp

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It’s a Halloween weekend tradition that extends back to, well, John Carpenter’s original Halloween in 1978: parents and kids go to fun fairs in preparation for the big night, while teens and young adults see R-rated horror fare at movie theaters. Family films rarely launch on Halloweekend; they usually wait until early November, when the trick-or-treating is over. Bucking the trend this year was Puss in Boots, the DreamWorks 3-D animated feature that promoted the ginger cat voiced by Antonio Banderas from supporting player in the Shrek films to star in his own movie, with Salma Hayek as Puss’s rival and inamorata, the black-furred Kitty Softpaws. DreamWorks Animation boss Jeffrey Katzenberg figured that the audience’s affection for Puss, plus Banderas’ appeal to Latino viewers, should make this tale of two kitties a hit and overcome any Halloween hex for films aimed at the family demographic.

Armed with glowing reviews from critics (81% on Rotten Tomatoes) and a healthy A-minus CinemaScore from early viewers, Puss in Boots did win the weekend at the North American box office with $34 million, according to preliminary studio estimates. That’s nearly three times the $12 million earned by another new movie, the science-fiction parable In Time, starring Justin Timberlake as a rebel running for his life against the clock, and close to seven times the $5 million cadged by The Rum Diary, Johnny Depp’s latest sodden tribute to his writer pal Hunter S. Thompson. But it was the meekest opening for any homemade DreamWorks cartoon comedy of this millennium. (Jerry Seinfeld’s 2007 Bee Movie registered the previous low of $38 million; the 2006 Flushed Away, at $18.8 million, doesn’t count because it was a co-production with Aardman Films.) So something was messing with Puss‘s vibe. A black cat, and not Kitty Softpaws, had crossed Katzenberg’s path and put a few jinxes on his movie.

(MORE: Why Puss in Boots Is One Cool Cat)

In a pre-release teleconference, Katzenberg noted that the top opening for a Halloween weekend had been Saw III‘s $33.6 million in 2006. “We believe we can exceed that benchmark,” he said. “Anything above and beyond that goes in the win column.” Since most industry swamis were forecasting $40 million or more for Puss, Katzenberg’s figure seemed like the usual lowball prediction that studio executives make about their films’ opening gross. Yet Puss had to scratch and claw to exceed Saw III‘s debut take, and because Puss was budgeted at a relatively lavish $130 million (to a cheapo $10 million for the Jigsaw sequel), all bragging rights are revoked.

Who to blame? Pick two culprits: a baseball player named David Freese and Mother Nature.

Friday should have been catnip for Puss, with little competition from TV to keep families at home. But the World Series went to Game 7 for the first time since 2002. And Game 6, in which Freese and his St. Louis Cardinals rallied twice from two-run deficits in their last at bats to defeat the Texas Rangers 10-9 in 11 innings, had been what many fans called the most exciting series tilt ever. So all the Friday watercooler talk made Game 7 a must-see for even casual fans — like an instant sequel to a smash movie, or the finale to the Harry Potter films. Would-be moviegoers changed plans and watched the finale, which, as Entertainment Weekly reported, attracted 25.4 million viewers, the most for any baseball game since the Red Sox broke their 86-year championship jinx in 2004. And if viewers didn’t watch the series, they tuned in to NBC’s hit fairy-tale show Grimm, which registered the highest Friday rating for any non-sports program in almost a year.

(MORE: Relive the Cardinals Win of a World Series Classic)

With this heavy competition, Puss still managed a middling $9.6 million on Friday. And Saturday is the big day for family films. Then a freak October snowstorm blanketed the East Coast, robbing 2.5 million residences and businesses of electricity and whacking Puss‘s Saturday numbers. (West Coast audiences weren’t snowed in, but some of them may have stayed home to watch the highly hyped Stanford-USC football game, which lured 6.7 million viewers.) Whether families will regroup to attend Puss on Sunday, we’ll know from the final weekend box office figures issued on Monday. Here’s hoping the Martians haven’t planned a Sunday invasion.

Animated features needn’t grab the big bucks in their first three days of domestic release. How to Train Your Dragon, another DreamWorks start-up, opened to $43.7 million and earned nearly half a billion dollars worldwide. This summer’s Kung Fu Panda 2 weathered a mediocre $47.7 million weekend debut to reap $663 million globally and become the year’s top-grossing animated feature. (Cars 2 is second, with $551 million.) Paramount, the distributor of Puss in Boots, says it has a two-weekend strategy for the film in domestic theaters and big feline eyes toward a foreign-market smash. Sequels are the cash kittens for animated features, but this one needs stronger numbers to green-light a Puss 2. The coming month should tell how many lives are left for the ginger cat.

(MORE: Kung Fu Panda 2 Has the Bear Necessities)

Horror films tend to plummet after a big opening, and last weekend’s No. 1, Paranormal Activity 3, dropped 65% to runner-up position this time, with $18.5 million. Despite the big fall, the movie is having a big fall: with $81.3 million in its first 10 days, PA3 has become the year’s highest-grossing autumn release, ahead of Contagion ($74 million in its eighth week), Real Steel ($73.8 million in its fourth), Moneyball ($67.4 million in its sixth) and Dolphin Tale ($67 million in its sixth).

(MORE: The Subtle Scares of Paranormal Activity 3)

In the next few weeks, Puss in Boots should top all these films in box office revenue — barring any more acts of God, that is. Or the devil.

Here are the Sunday estimates of this weekend’s top-grossing pictures in North American theaters, as reported by Charles Lyons of Thompson on Hollywood:

1. Puss in Boots, $34 million, first weekend
2. Paranormal Activity 3, $18.5 million; $81.3 million, second week
3. In Time, $11.6 million, first weekend
4. Footloose, $5.4 million; $38.4 million, third week
5. The Rum Diary, $5 million, first weekend
6. Real Steel, $4.7 million; $73.9 million, fourth week
7. The Three Musketeers, $3.5 million; $14.8 million, second week
8. The Ides of March, $2.4 million; $33.4 million, fourth week
9. Moneyball, $2.4 million; $67.4 million, sixth week
10. Courageous, $1.8 million; $27.6 million, fifth week