August Burnout: The Butler Stands Tall While Three New Films Fall

'We're the Millers' also holds strong on a slow movie weekend

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The Weinstein Company

What is the American public’s recreation of choice in late August? Avoiding movie theaters.

Exhausted from superhero adventures and apocalyptic dramas, consumers stay away in droves, skipping the new offerings and wanly patronizing the very few holdover films that have earned cheery word-of-mouth. For the first weekend since late February, no movie earned as much as $20 million. And for the first time since the same weekend last year, no debut picture cracked the $10-million mark.

The entire weekend brought in about $90 million, or less than Furious 6 earned on its own in three days — three months ago. It’s almost as if moviegoers had gone for their bad-film shots and been inoculated against paying to be disappointed at the multiplex.

Lee Daniels’ The Butler, the race-themed biopic that won last weekend, finished first again at North American theaters, with $17 million, according to the preliminary estimates of its studio, The Weinstein Company. This fact-based fiction of a servant’s 30-plus years in the White House dropped only 31 percent from its opening three days and has amassed $52.3 million, similar to the early take for the Jackie Robinson tribute film 42 ($27.7-million first weekend, $17.7-million second).

(READ: Fact vs. fiction in Lee Daniels’ The Butler)

The R-rated comedy We’re the Millers landed in second place with $13.5 million and has earned $91.5 million in 17 days. Beyond the first movie’s social uplift and the second’s mix of weed and raunch, audiences found little to their liking.

[UPDATE: In actual box-office figures, issued Monday, Lee Daniels’ The Butler and We’re the Millers both finished about $500,000 below their reported totals. Elysium and You’re Next swapped sixth and seventh places in the final tally, with the science-fiction thriller earning $6.93 million, the horror film $7.02 million. Blue Jasmine (actual gross: $3.97 million) fell from ninth to tenth place, behind Kick-Ass 2, ($4.37 million). For the third time in five weekends, Sony Pictures Classics overestimated the take of the Woody Allen drama by at least 7%. Cate Blanchett’s fiscally myopic Jasmine character must be doing SPC’s math.]

“This is traditionally one of those ‘who cares?’ domestic box office weekends,” wrote Deadline Hollywood‘s Nikki Finke, “not really worth my time or effort on analysis.”

Nikki, we feel your pain. So do the distributors of the three new films in wide release. The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones, meant to launch the big-screen versions of Cassandra Clare’s fantasy best-sellers (five novels and counting), took in a tepid $9.3 million over the weekend and $14.1 million since its Wednesday debut — proving that the success of the Twilight films and The Hunger Games is not easily duplicated. The young-adult constituency (68 percent female, 46 percent under 21) gave the film a middling B-plus rating in the CinemaScore survey of early attendees. Despite the quiet reception for this PG-13 entry on a $60-million budget, Sony has announced a sequel, City of Ashes, for next year. Doing the same thing and expecting a different result: Isn’t that Einstein’s definition of insanity?

(READ: Lev Grossman on the appeal of The Hunger Games

Some pundits had predicted that the R-rated horror film You’re Next could win the weekend. Produced for less than $1 million and shown to screams and rapture in the Midnight Madness section of the 2011 Toronto Film Festival, the movie gleaned appreciative reviews (John DeFore in The Hollywood Reporter: “A nasty little slasher film that… gets better once most of the cast has been butchered”) and an encouraging amount of Internet buzz. The paying crowd, though, figured it had seen the same home-invasion terrors and traumas, and with Ethan Hawke, in this June’s The Purge. Audiences ponied up barely $7 million for You’re Next, to which they awarded a B-minus CinemaScore.

(READ: The urge for The Purge)

Fanboys also loved Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, the English comedies starring Simon Pegg and Nick Frost and directed by Edgar Wright. The World’s End, which completes the “Three Flavours Cornetto Trilogy,” sends Pegg and Frost on a pub crawl to save the planet. Stoked by plenty of critical good will, The World’s End earned a modest $8.9 million and registered nearly the same per-screen average ($5,773) as Shaun nine years ago, and well below that of Hot Fuzz ($7,089) in 2006. In other words, the brand isn’t building (the new film’s CinemaScore: B-plus). Again, the mass of moviegoers may have wondered if they’d already given at the office for another Doomsday farce, the Seth Rogen This Is the End, two months ago.

(READ: Mary Pols’ review of The World’s End)

After four weeks in limited release, Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine expanded to 1,283 theaters and cracked the top 10 with a reported $4.3 million, for a cumulative $14.8 million. The one big art-house entry was sold as “Martin Scorsese Presents The Grandmaster,” but should really have been called “Martin Scorsese Presents Harvey Weinstein’s Edit of The Grandmaster,” since the Weinstein Company boss had ordered cuts and fixes to Wong Kar-wai’s biopic of Ip Man, the martial-arts teacher of Bruce Lee. As Scott Mendelson wrote in Forbes, “The ‘edited for time’ version faces the obvious hurdle of making the very people who would check this out in theaters sit back and debate whether they merely want to wait for the uncut Blu Ray or order a region-free international DVD.” Actually, enough of those very people decided to see it. Opening on seven screens, The Grandmaster grappled its way to $132,300.

(READ: Corliss on the great Hong Kong director Wong Kar-wai

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

1. Lee Daniels’ The Butler, $17 million; $52.3 million, second week
2. We’re the Millers, $13.5 million; $91.7 million, third week
3. The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones, $9.3 million; $14.1 million, first five days
4. The World’s End, $8.9 million, first weekend
5. Planes, $8.6 million; $59.6 million, third week
6. Elysium, $7.1 million; $69.1 million, third week
7. You’re Next, $7.05 million, first weekend
8. Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters, $5.2 million; $48.3 million, third week
9. Blue Jasmine, $4.3 million; $14.8 million, fifth week
10. Kick-Ass 2, $4.27 million; $22.4 million, second week