Big Days for Transylvania, Looper and Pitch Perfect

An Adam Sandler cartoon, a sci-fi conundrum and a Gleeful musical comedy all score on the first solid weekend since August

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Sony Pictures

Fall rises! On the first full weekend of autumn, the North American box office put a lot of spring in its step, recovering from its torpor of the last month and beating the total revenue of the same weekend last year by about 20%. Family viewers were welcomed to the Hotel Transylvania; high-IQ lovers of sci-fi films time-traveled to Looper; and college girls enrolled in the a-capella comedy Pitch Perfect. And for the first weekend since late April, the six highest-grossing films were all “originals” — not a sequel, prequel or Avengers-style superhero convention in sight.

The animated feature Hotel Transylvania, a kind of Movie Monsters, Inc., starring Adam Sandler as the voice of an innkeeper Dracula, surprised forecasters by posting a $43 million weekend. That’s good enough for the all-time best Sept. opening — though in real dollars it would finish well behind Sweet Home Alabama ($35.6 million in 2002) and the first Rush Hour movie ($33 million in 1998), in case any box-office bettor had the over-under on Sept. ticket sales. Tapping the 3-D animation fan base that has lodged Brave, Madagascar 3, Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax and Ice Age 4 among the year’s top-10 grosssers, the PG-rated Transylvania attracted an audience that was 76% families; of the few unaccompanied adults who attended, 60% were female.

(READ: Mary Pols’ review of Hotel Transylvania)

In his first cartoon-voice job since the 2002 Eight Crazy Nights ($23.8 million worldwide gross), the star was reunited with movie pals Kevin James (as Frankenstein) and Andy Samberg (as an oafish human interloper in the all-monster hotel) — and with the endangered notion that a Sandler movie could be a popular success. The cartoon amassed more in three days than the $36.9 million that comic’s last life-action jape, That’s My Boy, earned in its full three-month domestic run.

(READ: Mary Pols’ review of That’s My Boy)

Directed by Genndy Tartakovsky (the Star Wars: Clone Wars TV series), and cowritten by Robert Smigel, whose previous animation work included “The Ambiguously Gay Duo” for Saturday Night Live, the movie cost anywhere from $65 million to $104 million to produce, depending on which suspicious source you choose to believe. So it will need to achieve something that Adam Sandler movies rarely do: make a healthy percentage of its worldwide gross abroad. That’s just possible, given the enthusiasm of early filmgoers polled by the CinemaScore survey company. The overall rating for Transylvania was a lofty A-minus; kids and females gave it an even more indulgent “A.”

(READ: Graeme McMillan on Why Clone Wars Is the Work of the Sith)

“A” would have been the grade that critics gave to Looper; Rian Johnson’s Terminator-y drama received an 84 in the Metacritic crunching of the film’s reviews — the highest tally for a wide-release opening this year. Real people were not so enthralled: the CinemaScore rating was a mediocre B, with a B-plus from male viewers. And the $21.2 million that Looper earned in this debut weekend was less than half the Transylvania take. But that’s not bad for a knotty, R-rated tale of a future criminal (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) fighting with his 30-years-older self (Bruce Willis) over the fate of one small child. The Looper demographic — 59% male, 70% over the age of 25 — suggests that audiences were looking for a Bruce Willis action picture, and were perplexed by all the thinking they had to do between the killing scenes. In addition to the North American gross, though, Looper also earned $24 million this weekend in China (where part of the movie is set). Since the picture cost only $30 million to produce, it could be in the black after just three days of release.

(READ: Corliss’s review of Looper)
Pitch Perfect sounds like a baseball movie, and Clint Eastwood might wish that his Trouble With the Curve (dropping to the fourth spot in its second underperforming week) were doing as well as this perky, PG-13-rated comedy about a misfit transfer student (Anna Kendrick) forced to join a vocal group at her new college. Directed by first-time filmer Jason Moore, who staged Avenue Q and Shrek the Musical on Broadway, and costarring plus-size Australian Rebel Wilson in the Melissa McCarthy role, Pitch Perfect earned a hallelujah-chorus $5.1 million at just 335 theaters, many in college towns, for a sizzling $15,522 per-screen average and one of the strongest limited openings of the year. The movie is primed for a big seasonal success, since its audience, 74% of which was female, gave it a straight A.

(READ: Mary Pols’ review of Pitch Perfect)

The weekend’s one flop, Won’t Back Down, was also aimed at women. Maggie Gyllenhaal and Viola Davis star in this drama about parents and pedagogues who battle that malevolent force, the teachers’ union, to create better schools. The movie pulled an honor-roll A-minus in the CinemaScore polling; but in its matriculation at 2,515 locations — more than seven times as many sites as for Pitch Perfect — Won’t Back Down earned only about half as much, to stumble into tenth place. Yet another school-set movie, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, expanded from last weekend’s sensational opening on four screens to 102 theaters, where it took in a cum-laude $1.1 million, with an $11,137 per-screen average, or nearly as perfect as Pitch Perfect.

School’s in for autumn, and Hollywood is cashing in at the classroom.

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

1. Hotel Transylvania, $43 million, first weekend

2. Looper, $21.2 million, first weekend

3. End of Watch, $8 million; $26.2 million, second week

4. Trouble With the Curve, $7.5 million; $23.7 million, second week

5. House at the End of the Street, $7.2 million; $22.2 million, second week

6. Pitch Perfect, $5.2 million, first weekend

7. Finding Nemo, $4.1 million; $36.5 million, third week of rerelease

8. Resident Evil: Retribution, $3 million; $38.7 million, third week

9. The Master, $2.7 million; $9.6 million, third week

10. Won’t Back Down, $2.7 million, first weekend