Pixar’s Monsters and Brad Pitt’s Zombies Gang Up on Superman

Creatures of the night knock off the Man of Steel in a summer of one-week wonders

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Was this the start of summer — or Halloween? Moviegoers lined up to see a pair of creature features: the cute beasties of Monsters University and the pestilential zombies of World War Z. Pixar’s prequel to the 2001 Monsters, Inc. won the weekend at North American theaters with $82 million, according to preliminary studio estimates, while World War Z, produced by and starring Brad Pitt, scared up an infectious $66 million, far above the gross predicted by the industry’s Cassandras. In third place was last week’s box-office hero, the Superman movie Man of Steel, which earned $41.2 million for an 11-day domestic total of $210 million. Three 3-D epics, three big moneymakers.

Being atop the leader board is no novelty for Pixar: all 14 of the studio’s animated features, beginning with the 1995 Toy Story, have opened at No. 1. Still, Monsters U. slightly exceeded industry predictions. Only Toy Story 3 enjoyed a stronger debut, earning $110.3 million on this same weekend three years ago. Of course, Monsters U. benefits from higher ticket prices — higher still for 3-D and IMAX showings. In real dollars, this is just the sixth best Pixar debut, trailing Toy Story 3, Finding Nemo ($70.3 million in 2003, $90.3 million in today’s dollars), The Incredibles ($70.5 million in 2004, $90 million now), Toy Story 2 ($57.4 million in 1999, $88.4 million today) and Monsters, Inc. ($62.6 million then, $87.6 million now). The upside: even in real dollars, Monsters U. secured the company’s second biggest opening of the past nine years. And the movie will make zillions worldwide. It got a good start this weekend with $54.4 million in 35 markets, including Russia and Brazil.

(MORE: Corliss’s Review of Monsters University)

Pixar used to be known for its utterly original films — Ratatouille, WALL·E, Up — but the robust opening for Monsters U. validates, at least financially, the company’s strategy of becoming, in a way, the Marvel Studios of animation: heavy on the prequels and sequels. (Cars 2 came out two summers ago; a Finding Nemo follow-up, Finding Dory, is due in November 2015.) But whether fresh or rehashed, Pixar movies connect with their audiences. The Monsters U. matriculators — 56% female, and 60% under the age of 25 — awarded the movie a cum laude A rating in the CinemaScore survey of early attendees.

(MORE: Pixar Goes Sequel-Crazy)

If Monsters U. scored a bit above its expectations, World War Z opened on the high side of Wow! Based on Max Brooks’ 2006 docu-novel and plagued with a ballooning budget, as Pitt ordered a new ending to be written and shot after the previous third act proved underwhelming, this zombie-apocalypse drama was primed to be the After Earth of June, with Pitt as this month’s Will Smith — a big star stumbling on an expensive sci-fi project. Instead, WWZ registered Pitt’s all-time biggest opening, far more (in inflated dollars) than the $50.3 million for his Angelina Jolie spy rom-com Mr. & Mrs. Smith in 2005.

(MORE: Corliss’s Review of World War Z)

Pitt and Paramount marketed the heck out of the movie, and the last-minute fixes on the zombie hordes scaling a Jerusalem wall (by ILM FX wizard Scott Farrar) helped sell the prerelease trailers. WWZ received a satisfactory B-plus CinemaScore rating from its audience, which skewed slightly female (51%) and definitely older (67% age 25 or above) — unusual demographics for an action picture, let alone one about the walking dead.

(MORE: TIME’s Take on How Hollywood Ended the World)

Add to the domestic total the $45.8 million that WWZ cleared in 25 foreign markets, and suddenly director Marc Forster’s stated wish for a zombie trilogy doesn’t seem quite so chimerical. But then, nothing stokes Hollywood’s dreams for the future more than nightmare movies about the apocalypse. Need more evidence? This weekend’s No. 4 movie was the R-rated comedy This Is the End, starring Seth Rogen and an A list of A-holes (A for Apatow) who behave badly as they await Armageddon in their L.A. bunker.

(MORE: Mary Pols’ Review of This Is the End)

All these world-threatening movies resulted in audience rapture. The total revenue for the three days should be more than $240 million — the 22nd weekend in history that the domestic box office topped $200 million, and the fourth time this “summer,” beginning with the early-May debut of Iron Man 3 (which this week reached $400 million in North America and $1.2 billion worldwide). Couple the current cume with the $204 million amassed last weekend, and it’s just the third time that consecutive weekends produced a $200 million-plus total. Previous examples: the Christmas–New Year fortnight of 2009–10, when Avatar and Sherlock Holmes led the charge both weekends, and last November, with the Twilight Saga finale Breaking Dawn—Part 2 and the James Bond Skyfall accounting for most of the tickets. These past two frames were unique in one way: never before has Hollywood enjoyed back-to-back $200 million-plus weekends with different films at No. 1.

(MORE: How Iron Man 3 Got a Heart)

That’s good for the industry, right? Maybe not. Monsters U., World War Z and Man of Steel all cost a bundle, probably at least $200 million each, and they need a boffo public response just to break even. (How they eventually fare will depend on the grosses they accumulate in the international market, where the real money is.) With big-budget movies stacked up in the coming month like Dreamliners at LAX, one weekend’s smash can be the next weekend’s forgotten orphan.

Consider Man of Steel, which fell from a $116.6 million opening weekend to $41.2 million this time. That’s a 64.7% decline — the fifth largest drop ever for a movie that opened to more than $100 million. Only the final Harry Potter film and the last three Twilight episodes suffered a higher erosion rate, and those four were the ultimate chapters of story-driven fantasies based on popular novels. Man of Steel is an origins story; it’s meant to launch a franchise, not conclude it. In the box-office life of any blockbuster, savvy marketing can lure customers the first weekend; after that, the movie needs to be sustained by its word-of-mouth (and Tweet-of-social-media). It also helps if the film’s competition is slim. Man of Steel didn’t have that luxury. The Kryptonite for this Superman was the release of two popular movies, Monsters U. and WWZ, on its second weekend.

(MORE: Corliss’s Review of Man of Steel)

Those films will get more challengers next week, with the opening of White House Down (another world-ending thriller) and the Sandra Bullock–Melissa McCarthy buddy-cop comedy The Heat. July is clogged with action pictures (The Lone Ranger, Pacific Rim, Red 2, The Wolverine) and comedies both animated (Despicable Me 2, Turbo) and live-action (Grown-Ups 2, Girl Most Likely), plus the genre-blending R.I.P.D., an action comedy about dead policemen. So don’t bother hoping that WWZ can show the long box-office legs of tentpole originals like Avatar or Inception; those films opened in December and late July, when few behemoths lurked to reduce their earnings. On this summer’s overcrowded slate, big-budget movies had better grab their megabucks in their first few days, because Hollywood could be birthing a lot of the one-week wonders.

(MORE: TIME’s Summer Movie Preview)

Among indie releases, the Weinstein Co.’s Unfinished Song, an old-folks-in-love drama starring Vanessa Redgrave and Terence Stamp, opened to a decent $27,700 on two prime N.Y. and L.A. screens. Sofia Coppola’s The Bling Ring had a promising expansion, earning $2 million in 650 theaters — less than the March rollout of Spring Breakers, another movie about schoolgirls gone wild, but better than the recent semiwide showing of the rom-dram Before Midnight.

(MORE: Lily Rothman on the New Cinema of Stuff)

None of these look to compete with the star-studded art films Mud and The Place Beyond the Pines, both of which have taken in more than $20 million. And neither of those is anywhere near the $40 million-plus that such indie hits as Midnight in Paris, Moonrise Kingdom or The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel earned in previous summers. To put things in perspective: the $41.2 million that Man of Steel grossed in its “flop” second weekend may be more than any indie film will earn all year.

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

1. Monsters University, $82 million, first weekend
2. World War Z, $66 million, first weekend
3. Man of Steel, $41.2 million; $210 million, second week
4. This Is the End, $13 million; $57.8 million, second week
5. Now You See Me, $7.9 million; $94.5 million, fourth week
6. Furious 6, $4.7 million; $228.4 million, fifth week
7. The Internship, $3.254 million; $38.4 million, third week
8. The Purge, $3.412 million; $59.4 million, third week
9. Star Trek Into Darkness, $3 million; $216.6 million, sixth week
10. Iron Man 3, $2.2 million; $403.1 million, eighth week