Live and Let Fly: Skyfall Breaks the Bond Barrier

The 23rd film in the 007 series spies a $90-million weekend in North America and a $510-million worldwide total

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Francois Duhamel/Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures/Columbia Pictures/EON Productions

The sky’s the limit for Skyfall. The 23rd episode in the 50-year James Bond series produced by the Broccoli family, and the third to star Daniel Craig as 007, earned $87.8 million at North American theaters this weekend, according to preliminary studio estimates, for the year’s fourth strongest opening, after The Avengers, The Dark Knight Rises and The Hunger Games. Celebrating the franchise’s golden anniversary in style — with plenty of gelt — the new movie added a hefty four-day domestic take ($90 million, including Thursday-evening IMAX screenings) to its 17-day foreign revenue of $428.6 million, giving it a $518.6 million worldwide gross. More than any other Bond film, Skyfall is a windfall.

(LIST: 50 Things You Didn’t Know About James Bond)

On a weekend when business jumped about 20% from the same time last year, most of the popular pictures were aimed at adults. The Skyfall audience, which proclaimed its favor with an “A” rating in the CinemaScore survey of early attendees, trended more mature than the average first-weekend blockbuster crowd: 75% were over the age of 25. Between Skyfall, Flight, Argo and Taken 2, four of the weekend’s top five grossers all held well with older moviegoers. The same was true for the big limited-release debut, Steven Spielberg‘s Lincoln, which found fully two-thirds of its patrons among the 35-plus set. Starring Daniel Day-Lewis, and dramatizing the sixteenth president’s push to ratify the anti-slavery amendment, Lincoln scored a sensational $900,000 at just 11 theaters and matched Skyfall with an “A” CinemaScore. It opens wider on Friday.

(READ: Corliss’s review of Lincoln)

[UPDATE: Final figures released Monday gave Skyfall an even loftier $88.4 million for the domestic weekend. Bond 23 earned another $9.3 million on Monday, for a four-day North American total of $101.9 million. Lincoln also topped its Sunday estimate with $944,308,]

Meanwhile, the very young stuck with Wreck-It Ralph, the intergenerational video-game animated feature that earned $33.1 million for second place. At $93.7 million in week two, Ralph is nearly on the pace of another non-Pixar Disney cartoon, the 2010 Tangled, which amassed $96.6 million in its first 10 days and went on to gross $200 million in North America and nearly $400 million abroad. Kids this weekend also kept the Adam Sandler animated feature Hotel Transylvania in the top 10 well beyond Halloween. No surprise that Sandler has a sequel in the works for what is the fall’s biggest hit so far — until Skyfall‘s numbers pass it, and until teens return to the multiplexes next weekend, in droves, for the fifth and final episode of author Stephenie Meyer’s vampire-love Twilight Saga.

(READ: Mary Pols’ review of Wreck-It Ralph)

Neither Sandler nor Meyer had been born when James Bond made his movie debut in Dr. No, the first of six films in the Bond-Broccoli canon starring Sean Connery. Made for $1 million, Dr. No cleared $16.1 million in the States and $59.6 million worldwide, according to a helpful list on The Numbers website, and those figures were just appetizers. The third Bond, Goldfinger in 1964, tripled the domestic take ($51.1 million) and more than doubled the global gross ($124.9 million); and the fourth, the 1965 Thunderball, earned $63.6 million in North America and $141.2 worldwide. That may not seem like a huge haul, but in real dollars it’s real money — about $1.1 billion today. On Box Office Mojo’s chart of all-time domestic box-office winners adjusted for inflation, Thunderball ranks a lofty 28th, sandwiched between two billion-dollar titles: this year’s The Avengers and the 2008 The Dark Knight.

(READ: Corliss on the James Bond franchise at 50)

With Roger Moore replacing Connery for seven Bond films between 1973’s Live and Let Die and the 1985 A View to a Kill, the worldwide take hovered between $150 million and $210 million (except for the floppish The Man With the Golden Gun in 1974, at $97.6 million). Two late-’80s Bonds with Timothy Dalton, The Living Daylights and License to Kill, maintained the global average of the Moore movies; then the worldwide figures skyrocketed, to between $340 million and $432 million, in the four Bonds starring Pierce Brosnan from 1995 (GoldenEye) to 2002 (Die Another Day). The 2006 Casino Royale, which rebooted the series with Craig as a rougher, action-star 007, earned $596.4 million worldwide, and the 2008 Quantum of Solace $591.7 million. Skyfall has passed the half-billion-dollar threshold in its third week.

(SEE: Every James Bond opening scene — ranked

What’s amazing about this run of hits, which cover half of the century-long history of feature films, is its consistency. Only two films in the series (the sixth, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, with Australian-no-star George Lazenby filling in for Connery, and The Man With the Golden Gun) suffered revenue drops of more than 20% from their predecessors. Most of the other Bonds made a stately march upward at the box office, earning in the mid-hundreds of millions, even as their budgets ballooned into the $200-million range. Yet the recent Bond films never vaulted into the billion-dollar stratosphere occupied by contemporary action fantasies such as the Harry Potter, Pirates of the Caribbean, Batman, Transformers or Avengers franchises. Skyfall, with mostly rapturous reviews (a 91% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, the same as Lincoln) and an Oscar-winning director (Sam Mendes) and costars (Judi Dench and Javier Bardem), could be the first Bond film to flirt with a 10-figure worldwide gross — a platinum prize for its golden anniversary.

(READ: Corliss’s review of Skyfall)

In indie openings, A Royal Affair, Denmark’s official submission in the Academy Award foreign-language category, earned $40,000 at seven locations — a so-so number that may reflect all the competition for adult audiences among the mainstream releases. The climate-change doc Chasing Ice cashed in an impressive $21,000 at New York’s Cinema Village Theater and will go wider next week. Distributors for the French-Canadian romance Café de Flore, which opened in New York City after a one-week postponement for superstorm Sandy, have not yet reported this weekend’s box-office stats.

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

1. Skyfall, $87.8 million, first weekend; $90 million, first four days

2. Wreck-It Ralph, $33.1 million; $93.7 million, second week

3. Flight, $15.1 million; $47.8 million, second week

4. Argo, $6.7 million; $85.7 million, fifth week

5. Taken 2, $4 million; $131.3 million, sixth week

6. Here Comes the Boom, $2.55 million; $39.1 million, fifth week

7. Cloud Atlas, $2.53 million; $22.7 million, third week

8. Pitch Perfect, $2.5 million; $59 million, seventh week

9. The Man With the Iron Fists, $2.49 million; $12.7 million, second week

10. Hotel Transylvania, $2.35 million; $140.9 million, seventh week