The Croods Cruises and Olympus Rises, but Tina Feyls Her Admission Exam

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DreamWorks Animation

Moviegoers were in the mood for the dudes named Crood, as DreamWorks Animation’s 3-D, PG Stone Age feature The Croods won the North American weekend box office with $44.7 million, according to early studio estimates. The White House invasion fantasy Olympus Has Fallen, which scored a $30.5-million debut, also benefitted from the onset of spring — and of spring break for kids K-16 — as did the raunchy indie farce Spring Breakers, earning $5 million in just 1,101 theaters. Only Admission, starring Tina Fey as a Princeton admissions officer, flunked the weekend, with $6.4 million at 2,160 venues. When school’s out, few viewers want to be reminded of academic anxieties.

The plethora of audience-pleasing debut movies — plus a strong holdover of Oz the Great and Powerful, which cadged another $22 million, to raise its 17-day domestic total to $177.6 million — made this the top-grossing weekend of 2013, which has lagged 15-20% behind the same period in 2012. Yet the box-office cume fell even further behind, because the big movie this time last year was The Hunger Games, whose record-busting $152.5 million in its first three days was greater than the total for all films this weekend. The theatrical revenue stream keeps trickling; Hollywood needs a bailout and is getting a sequester.

(READ: Corliss’s review of Oz the Great and Powerful)

The Croods sends a family of Cavemen (voiced by Nicolas Cage as the dad, Catherine Keener as the mom and Emma Stone as the teen rebel) on a road trip to outrun the coming geological catastrophe; it’s like the Doomsday epic The Day After Tomorrow, but animated and recast with the Simpsons. Produced at a cost of $135 million, and opening on 4,046 screens (76% in 3D), the movie won a gold-star “A” rating from the CinemaScore poll of early attendees, who skewed female (57%) and older than usual for an animated feature: 55% above the age of 25. By comparison, 55% of the audience for another family comedy-drama, Pixar’s Brave, was under 25.

(READ: Corliss’s review of The Croods)

The first DreamWorks cartoon to be distributed by 20th Century Fox, after a deal with Paramount elapsed, The Croods should wash out the acrid taste of the numbers for DreamWorks’ late-2012 feature, Rise of the Guardians, which exceeded $300 million worldwide but obliged the studio to take an $89-million writedown. For now — at least until Monday, when the final tabulations are issued — the Cage-cave epic can boast that it beat the $43.7 million that the studio’s 2010 How to Train Your Dragon earned its first weekend, on its way to a healthy $217.6-million domestic total and nearly a hnalf-billion dollars at the worldwide box office. The $62.6 million that The Croods pulled in foreign markets this weekend is encouraging, and allows DreamWorks boss Jeffrey Katzenberg to mull the most sacred word in an animation boss’s vocabulary: Franchise!

(READ: Mary Pols’ review of Rise of the Guardians)

[MONDAY UPDATE: According to the actual box-office figures issued this evening, The Croods finished 2.4% under its Sunday number, or $43.6 million. That’s slightly less than How to Train Your Dragon and well below the $59.3-million opening weekend for DreamWorks’ March 2009 cartoon, Monsters vs Aliens. The $30.4-million gross for Olympus Has Fallen fell just a smidge short of yesterday’s forecast. For the third weekend in a row, Disney overestimated Oz the Great and Powerful’s earnings by about 2% — the movie’s actual weekend tally was $21.6 million — while Admission finished at $6.25 million, or 4.5% off its sadly modest estimate. Even Spring Breakers, at $4.85 million, couldn’t meet its Sunday number. Maybe audiences stayed home to watch the NCAA basketball tournament. Or all the real spring breakers were partying, not movieing.]

(READ: Corliss’s review of Monsters vs Aliens)

Olympus Has Fallen imagines that North Korean commandos manage to invade and take command of the White House (though not because Sequester cuts furloughed all the armed guards), leaving the fate of the country to the ingenuity and brute strength of disgraced Secret Service agent Gerard Butler. Think Die Hard at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Justifying its $70-million price tag, Olympus notched the highest three-day opening for any 2013 action picture — creaming A Good Day to Die Hard’s $24.8 million — and received a near-heroic A-minus CinemaScore from its hardy band of older moviegoers: 73% over the age of 25. If the film shows staying power here and abroad, it will stanch Butler’s string of flops and give the actor his first decent box-office achievement since Law Abiding Citizen ($73.4 million domestic in 2010) or, if you will, his voice work as the ferocious Scottish Viking in How to Train Your Dragon.

(READ: Corliss’s review of How to Train Your Dragon)

Admission might have seemed a smart counter-strategy for this weekend; the adult-themed romantic comedy would have little competition, with Identity Thief (the year’s second biggest hit, at $127.7 million) nearing the end of its run. So what went wrong? Fey, a class act and ratings-grabber on 30 Rock and as cohost of the Golden Globes with fellow SNL alumna Amy Poehler, has starred in exactly two movies: Baby Mama, another Poehler effort that earned $60.5 million in 2008, and the Steve Carell co-starrer Date Night, which grazed $100 million three spring ago. Those are nice numbers, no question; but for audiences to pay for Fey on the big screen, when they can get her undiluted at home for free, requires a project more alluring than one about an uptight college administrator getting life lessons. Fey needs to crack wise, not to learn wise.

(READ: Mary Pols’ review of Admission)

Admission marks the latest star-driven disappointment for the “indie” outfit Focus Features (a subsidiary of NBCUniversal), after a puny $7.6 million for the Matt Damon Promised Land, a crippling $6.4 million for the Bill Murray Hyde Park on Hudson and a creaky $12.8 million for the Keira Knightley Anna Karenina. That adaptation of Tolstoy’s classic love story, which reunited Knightley with Joe Wright, her director for the 2005 Pride and Prejudice ($38.4 million in North America, $82.7 million international) and the 2007 Atonement ($50.9 million domestic, $78.8 million abroad), was touted as an Oscar contender when it premiered at the Toronto Film Festival. Yet while earning a healthy $50.1 million overseas, Anna sank in the States. Admission can’t expect the robust foreign grosses of the Wright-Knightley films, and with a modest production budget of $13 million it may not need them. But the unimpressive B-minus CinemaScore rating it got from its older (47% 50 years or older), female (68%) audience hints at a feylure for Tina’s latest film foray.

(READ: Corliss’s review of the Keira Knightley Anna Karenina)

Spring Breakers, Harmony Korine’s nutso Florida fresco starring James Franco and a bevy of escapees from the Disney and ABC Family channels, easily covered its $2-million production costs in a single weekend. A pair of indie movies about the overachieving underclass also opened encouragingly. Gimme the Loot, detailing the scheme of two graffiti artists to tag the Mets home-run Apple at Citi Field, pulled in $23,000 at one Manhattan theater. And The Weinstein Company’s The Sapphires, a fact-based, feel-good Australian musical drama about an aboriginal girl group in the ’60s, opened to $40,900 on four screens — a hopeful number boosted by the 93% approval rating on the reviewers aggregate site Rotten Tomatoes.

(READ: Corliss’s review of Spring Breakers)

The lowest of the indie bottom-feeders was InAPPropriate Comedy, with a piquant cast including Oscar-winner Adrian Brody and non-anything winners Rob Schneider and Lindsay Lohan. Rated R “for strong crude and sexual content, graphic nudity, pervasive language and drug use,” this farrago about a computer tablet full of obscene apps earned just $172,000 at 275 theaters, for a mortifying per-screen average of $625. On the first weekend of spring, there was a vast distance between The Croods and The Cruds.

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

1. The Croods, $44.7 million, first weekend
2. Olympus Has Fallen, $30.5 million, first weekend
3. Oz the Great and Powerful, $22 million; $177.6 million, third week
4. The Call, $8.7 million; $30.9 million, second week
5. Admission, $6.4 million, first weekend
6. Spring Breakers, $5 million; $5.4 million, second week
7. The Incredible Burt Wonderstone, $4.3 million; $ 17.4 million, second week
8. Jack the Giant Slayer, $3 million; $59.1 million, fourth week
9. Identity Thief, $2.5 million; $127.7 million, seventh week
10. Snitch, $1.9 million; $40.3 million, fifth week