Despicable and Grown Ups Sequels Pummel Pacific Rim

After this weekend's box office numbers, someone in Hollywood must be asking, 'Can we just make sequels?'

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Universal Pictures

Despicable Me 2

Someone in Hollywood is asking: Can we just make sequels? Could we farm out the “originals,” then co-opt the ones that work and put numerals after them? Sequels are so much easier to greenlight, produce and market, since all we have to tell American moviegoers is. “You liked the last one. Here it is again.” And overseas, where the real money is, audiences are much more receptive to a second or third film than to a first. Basically, they don’t go unless they’ve seen it before. So, somebody else, you make the originals. After they hit $400 million worldwide, we’ll come calling.

That would be the takeaway from this weekend’s box-office numbers. Two movies with 2 in their titles — sequels to the Despicable Me and Grown Ups comedies of three summers ago — finished first and second at North American theaters, while a new blockbuster hopeful, Pacific Rim, came in third. All three films achieved decent grosses of between $38 million and $45 million. The intense competition helped push the three-day total about 30% above the same weekend last year, when Ice Age: Continental Drift (fourth in that cartoon franchise) was the only new film in wide release.

[UPDATE: According to the official figures issued Monday, the top three films finished between $850,000 and $1 million below their Sunday estimates. Despicable Me 2 actually earned $43.9 million (down 1.9%); Grown Ups 2 made $41.5 million (down 2.3%) and Pacific Rim $37.3 million (down 2.6%). The Lone Ranger did 3.3% better than the forecast, grossing $11.1 million. And in limited release, Fruitvale Station took in $386,291, or 2.5% above expectations.]

Despicable Me 2 scored another win in its second weekend, earning $44.8 million, according to preliminary studio estimates. The kid-friendly PG movie, with Steve Carell and Kristen Wiig voicing the main characters, has notched $229.2 million in 10 domestic days and $243.2 million in 24 days abroad, for a speedy global total of $472.4 million. No supervillain could steal that much that quickly unless he was an investment banker.

(READ: Mary Pols’ review of Despicable Me 2)

Close on Gru’s trail, at $42.5 million, was longtime comedy superstar Adam Sandler with Grown Ups 2 — his sixth live-action film to open to at least $40 million, and the first since the 2010 Grown Ups. With a budget of $80 million, the PG-13 effort reenlisted the first film’s male costars (Kevin James, Chris Rock and David Spade) and attracted an audience that gave the picture a shrug-worthy B-minus rating in the CinemaScore survey.

(SEE: The Grown Ups 2 trailer)

Sandler, the top comedy draw of the past 15 years, had stumbled recently with the PG rom-com Jack and Jill ($25 million first weekend, $74 million domestic gross) and the R-rated farce That’s My Boy ($13.5 million opening, $36.9 million total). Sandler’s only hit between the two Grown Ups episodes was Hotel Transylvania, an animated-feature comedy for which he provided the lead voice, and which of course is soon to be sequelized. But the star should be encouraged by the demographics for Grown Ups 2: 54% under the age of 25, suggesting that the 46-year-old actor could still appeal to younger moviegoers; and 53% female, which is high for a guy comedy.

(READ: Pols’ review of Hotel Transylvania

You could argue that the $38.3 million Pacific Rim earned in its first weekend is high for a brand new monster movie with no star power (the top-billed actors are Charlie Hunnam, Idris Elba and Rinko Kikuchi) and which is not based on a famous video game or toy. Unlike the Transformers bots, there were no Kaiju or Jaeger action figures for boys of an earlier generation to play with, bond with and want to revisit in movie form. These dinosaurs and man-machines were dreamed up by director Guillermo Del Toro and screenwriter Travis Beacham. Pacific Rim is Avatar vs. Godzilla — if you didn’t know who James Cameron is and you’d never heard of Godzilla.

(READ: Corliss’s review of Pacific Rim)

Del Toro, though certainly a fan favorite for his Hellboy movies and the art-house horror film Pan’s Labyrinth, is not a big-name Hollywood auteur like producer Steven Spielberg and director Michael Bay (the Transformers movies) or Roland Emmerich (Independence Day, Godzilla, 2012). The Mexican director is probably best known for the fantasy series he worked on for two years but didn’t get to make: The Hobbit. So it’s kind of impressive that the three-day take of Pacific Rim outgrossed the opening weekends for a trio of star-driven summer action movies — Channing Tatum’s White House Down (directed by Emmerich), Will Smith’s After Earth and Johnny Depp’s The Lone Ranger — by an average of $10 million.

(READ: Corliss on Del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth)

Granted, Hollywood has designated those films as the season’s biggest flops. And Pacific Rim, which cost at least $190 million to produce, needs about $400 million worldwide to break even. Del Toro’s fanboys did their best to help: the young (67% under 35), male (61%) crowd awarded Pacific Rim a CinemaScore of A-minus, and half of them paid extra to see the movie in 3-D (the highest percentage this summer). Overseas it earned a respectable $53 million in 38 markets. What’s possible is that, here and abroad, audiences are suffering from blockbuster fatigue: the weekly assault of armed heroes battling Armageddon. If Del Toro’s film had opened in May or early June, it might have seemed fresher and had what the moguls call want-see. In mid-July, though, Pacific Rim is just the summer’s last action hero.

(SEE: an exclusive mega-brawl scene from Pacific Rim)

In Indieland, art reflected life and death. The Sundance and Cannes hit Fruitvale Station, which relates the true story of Oscar Grant, a young black man fatally shot by a guard on a BART train in Oakland on New Year’s Day in 2009, bears eerie similarities to the shooting of Trayvon Martin, the Sanford, Fla., teenager whose killer, George Zimmerman, was acquitted of second-degree murder and manslaughter charges yesterday. Fruitvale opened to a robust $377,295 in seven theaters, for a lofty $53,898 per-screen average, the year’s third highest. It’s debatable that filmgoers would flock to see a movie tragedy because of its uncomfortable connection to a headline tragedy. But the coincidence indicates that, outside the billion-dollar dreams of Hollywood, America is full of sad sequels.

(READ: Mary Pols’ review of Fruitvale Station by subscribing to TIME)

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

1. Despicable Me 2, $44.8 million; $229.4 million, second week
2. Grown Ups 2, $42.5 million, first weekend
3. Pacific Rim, $38.3 million, first weekend
4. The Heat, $14 million; $112.4 million, third week
5. The Lone Ranger, $11.1 million; $71.1 million second week
6. Monsters University, $10.6 million; $237.8 million, fourth week
7. World War Z, $9.3 million; $177.1 million, fourth week
8. White House Down, $6.15 million; $63 million, third week
9. Kevin Hart: Let Me Explain, $5 million; $26.4 million, second week
10. Man of Steel, $4.8 million; $281 million, fifth week