The cartoon birds soared; the slashers got diced and sliced. Rio, the 3-D animated feature about two macaws that fall in love during a Brazilian carnival, flew tantalizingly close to an elusive box-office ceiling with an announced first weekend of $40 million, according to early estimates by the movie's producers, 20th Century-Fox and Blue Sky Studios. That number was more than double the take of Rio's nearest competitor Scre4m, The Weinstein Company's reboot of its '90s horror comedy franchise.
If the Rio figure is confirmed Monday, when the final actual weekend tallies are issued, it will mark the first time in 2011 that a film has earned as much as $40 million in a weekend a number that was exceeded nine times in the same period last year. What's certain is that this weekend's box-office total will be higher than the same frame in 2010 for only the second time in this slumping year.
[MONDAY UPDATE: In fact, Rio did not hit $40 million, according to final figures released today. It and most of the other films in the top 10 ended up below their estimates. In the Monday tally, Hanna leapfrogged over Soul Surfer; and The Conspirator, whose weekend gross was overreported by more than 10%, fell from ninth place to 11th, behind Your Highness and Limitless. The actual numbers for the top-earning dozen films are: 1. Rio, $39.2 million; 2. Scre4m, $18.7 million; 3. Hop, $10.7 million; 4. Hanna, $7.28 million; 5. Soul Surfer, $7.27 million; 6. Arthur, $7.755 million; 7. Insidious, $6.745 million; 8. Source Code, $6.2 million; 9. Your Highness, $4 million; 10. Limitless, $3.7 million; 11. The Conspirator, $3.5 million; 12. The Lincoln Lawyer, $2.9 million.]
Attracting audiences of all ages, and winning a gold-star A rating in the CinemaScore poll of exiting moviegoers, Rio added the U.S. and Canada to the list of countries it has conquered. Since its world premiere Mar. 22 in, where else, Rio de Janeiro, the film has earned a gaudy $132.7 million abroad. That echoes the success of Blue Sky's 2009 Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs, which amassed nearly 80% of its $886.7-million worldwide gross on foreign shores. Thanks in part to government concessions in Blue Sky's tax-shelter home base of Connecticut, Rio was produced for a relatively thrifty $90 million; the budgets for Pixar movies often top $200 million, and Disney's long-gestating Gnomeo & Juliet cost about a quarter-billion dollars.
With the 3-D surcharge, it's likely that Rio had fewer paying customers its first weekend than did the 2-D quasi-cartoons, Rango (which opened to $38.1 million) and Hop ($37.5 million). The Easter Bunny comedy had been No. 1 for the last two weekends, but what was billed as the battle of feathers vs. fur was a massacre: the birds of Rio earned nearly four times as much as the wascally wabbit voiced by Russell Brand. And with Easter and spring-break vacations approaching, Rio should enjoy the highest-flying weekdays of the year.
So there's moderate merriment in Tinseltown, except at The Weinstein Company. Scre4m the fourth entry in the Kevin Williamson-Wes Craven horror comedy series, and the first in 11 years opened more to a whimper than to a bloody bang. Forecast to register in the mid-to-high $20 millions, Scre4m exhausted its fan base Friday night, taking a 19% dive on Saturday (while Rio's numbers jumped 65%). Since horror films tend to be one-weekend phenomena, it's entirely possible that the R-rated Scre4m, which cost around $40 million to produce, will end up grossing less than the spooky, microbudgeted Insidious. That PG-13 atmospheric horror film, made for a bit more than $1 million, has earned an outsize $36 million in its first 17 days and is showing remarkable staying power.
The Weinstein film has plenty of comely teens getting eviscerated; but the real victims this year have been movies, like Scre4m, designed to appeal to the young-male audience. Once the most reliable demographic of filmgoers, it is suddenly the hardest to reach, whether because of mediocre product or a seismic change in how guys in their teens and 20s want to spend their pocket money and free time. The debut in two weeks of Fast Five fifth in the Fast and Furious car-crazy series whose first four episodes have earned $955.5 million at the worldwide box office will go a long way toward determining if the testosterone set can be lured back into movie theaters in time for the summer's would-be blockbusters.
So who's left to go to movies? Kids and their parents, and teen and tween girls. Families flock to Rio, Rango, Gnomeo and Hop, while the pre-teen females patronize Justin Bieber: Never Say Never ($72.8 million) and their elder sisters line up to see Ashton Kutcher woo Natalie Portman in No Strings Attached ($70.7 million), the only R-rated hit comedy of the year to date. Two of this week's top five entries are also femme faves: Soul Surfer, the Christian-themed, true-life sports inspirational about the return to competitive glory of a one-armed surfer girl; and Hanna, a teen-assassin melodrama featuring 17-year-old Saoirse Ronan. Because their stars are young and expectations limited, these movies are cheap to make $18 million for Soul Surfer, $30 million for Hanna so the payback is faster and bigger. You're likely to see more of these and fewer of the rowdy R-rated bromances.
In Indieland, where the NPR crowd goes for its cinematic haute cuisine, The Conspirator broke into the weekend's top 10 with $3.9 million at 707 theaters. This courtroom drama, directed by Robert Redford, might have been called The Lincoln Lawyer; it's a fact-based story, set in 1865, of a young attorney (James McAvoy) defending Mary Surratt (Robin Wright) on the charge that that she harbored the men who killed Abraham Lincoln. Made for about $25 million, The Conspirator had a strong per-screen average of $5,500.
One other film in limited release boasted an even burlier per-screen average of $5,600. That was perhaps the year's most improbable production: Atlas Shrugged Part I, an adaptation of the 1957 Ayn Rand novel that has long been deemed "unfilmable" and if you want proof, see this version. Yet there's a market for the movie, since Rand's Objectivist philosophy has found powerful adherents in federal and state governments, in right-wing think tanks and in the mythical but influential country of Glennbeckistan. Finishing 14th this week with $1.7 million in just 300 theaters, Atlas Shrugged may vie with Soul Surfer to be the year's top out-of-nowhere, niche-audience hit.
Here are the Sunday estimates of this weekend's top-grossing pictures in North American theaters, as reported by Box Office Mojo:
1. Rio, $40 million, first weekend
2. Scre4m, $19.3 million, first weekend
3. Hop, $11.2 million; $82.6 million, second week
4. Soul Surfer, $7.4 million; $20 million, second week
5. Hanna, $7.3 million; $23.3 million, second week
6. Arthur, $6.94 million; $22.3 million, second week
7. Insidious, $6.86 million; $36 million, third week
8. Source Code, $6.3 million; $37 million, third week
9. The Conspirator, $3.9 million, first weekend
10. Your Highness, $3.9 million; $15.95 million, second week