Huff Post Weekend Box Office Review: Couples Retreat Triumphs While Paranormal Activity Explodes

There are two major surprises this weekend, both good news for those involved. After weeks of four or more major releases opening over each weekend, this weekend inexplicably left but a single wide-opener, which led to bigger than expected numbers for the weekend's number 01 film and a distinct lack of bleeding from the holdovers. Oh, and a movie grossed $7.9 million on just 160 screens, but more on that later. The weekend's number 01 film (with $34.2 million) was Couples Retreat, the poorly reviewed romantic comedy starring a whole gaggle of talent (Vince Vaughn, Jason Bateman, Jon Favreau, Faizon Love, Malin Akerman, Kristin Davis, Kristen Bell, and Jean Reno). Despite the bad reviews, the simple and appealing marketing campaign made this the very definition of harmless entertainment for the casual moviegoer.

The desertion of Shutter Island and the resulting release date shuffle left this one with a weekend all to itself. It actually broke the Columbus Day opening weekend record, set nine years ago by Meet the Parents. In something that should be ironic but in fact happens all the time, this big hit for the otherwise hit-starved Universal will be credited to new Universal chairman Adam Fogelson, rather than the just-fired Marc Shmuger and David Linde who actually green-lit the picture. Word of mouth merited just a 'B' from Cinema Score, but Universal was quick to point out that The Break Up and Four Christmases had worse word of mouth but ended up quadrupling their opening weekend take. That's certainly possible, as the film played stronger with older audiences and women than with youngsters and men. IE - without any real demo competition until who knows when, this one could trickle down to the younger demographic and the general male moviegoers in the weekends ahead. Obviously, next weekend will tell the tale, but this movie just screams 'safe second-choice' for the near future.

With strong word of mouth and a continued ad push, Zombieland dropped just 40% for a $14.8 million second-weekend and a $47.6 million ten-day total. It really is a terrific film, and its low-key plausibility actually makes it quite a bit scarier than the more straight-forward end-of-world zombie pictures. The one-two punch of The Stepfather and Saw VI may make an impact (to say nothing of... well, see below), but the sheer quality and good cheer of this one will keep it around for the near future. This is the kind of movie that people see again when they just want to see a movie but have already seen the new releases. Third place went to the seemingly unstoppable Cloudy With A Chance of Meatballs. It dropped just 27% for a new total of $95.7 million. And if it can weather the loss of 3D screens to the Toy Story/Toy Story 2 3D double feature, than it can handle losing its IMAX screens next weekend to Where the Wild Things Are. Fifth place went to said Toy Story double feature, which dropped just 38% for a new $22.7 million total. That's not bad for basically a feature-length experiment/ advertisement for Toy Story 3D and the eventual Toy Story Blu Ray box set.

Did I forget fourth place? Oh, just some $11,000 horror movie that grossed $7.9 million on 160 screens for a $49,379 per screen average. Paranormal Activity paid off weeks of 'ask your city to screen this movie' marketing, as well as literally two years of 'Have you heard of this thing? It's the scariest movie ever!' underground word of mouth. Once doomed to be buried in a Paramount vault while it was remade with stars and a bigger budget, the no-name glorified stage play plowed into the record books. This is by far the biggest weekend gross for anything playing on less than 200 screens (and possibly 500?). While the 'make Paramount open this film in your city' marketing push was a pretty obvious con (it was always going to go wide around Halloween), there is nothing more effective than making audiences think that they discovered something for themselves. Obvious parallels to The Blair Witch Project and its online-based marketing are certainly relevant, Blair Witch barely surpassed the current per-screen average for Paranormal Activity on just 30 screens (its first two weekends had theater counts of 27 and 31, with per-screen averages of $56,000 and $63,000).

But beyond the astounding numbers is the sad fact that Paramount really had nothing better to do than pimp this underground little-engine-that-could. With The Air Up There pushed to December, Shutter Island pushed to February and The Lovely Bones not going wide until January, Paramount really could devote all of its time to this otherwise disposable little cult flick. We'll see how quickly Paramount expands this one and what happens when it truly goes wide. Making predictions about long-term box office for this one isn't even plausible. Assuming it will repeat the $140 million of The Blair Witch Project is about as smart as expecting King Kong to outgross Titanic because they were both three-hour period piece love stories. But either way, Paranormal Activity has two major disadvantages, the rise in online piracy (if ever there was a movie that wouldn't be harmed by watching it on a computer screen...) and the absolute glut of horror titles between now and November 6th. We have (deep breath): Zombieland, Paranormal Activity, The Stepfather, Saw VI, and The Box. Remember when all Jigsaw had to worry about was Ashley Tisdale and Zac Efron?

The rest of the holdovers had drops around 40%. Only The Invention Of Lying took a 52% tumble, for no other likely reason than disinterest. It'll crawl to $20 million and do fine as a rental. Whip It has yet to break the $9 million mark, proving that you people suck. Capitalism: A Love Story is just under $10 million, and it will break into the all-time top ten documentary list next weekend. Fame passed the $20 million mark, I Can Do Bad All By Myself passed $50 million, and The Informant is just shy of $30 million on a mere $22 million investment (if there is justice, the film will pick up again in January when Matt Damon gets a well-deserved Oscar nomination). In the limited release arena, An Education grossed $59,017 on four screens, A Serious Man expanded to 21 screens and grossed $459,318, and the Chris Rock-fronted documentary Good Hair did $1.04 million on 186 screens.

That's all for this weekend. Next weekend marks the return of the traffic jam, as Where the Wild Things Are, The Stepfather, and Law Abiding Citizen all vie for a piece of the box office pie. How I eagerly await the weekend of the 30th, when there is nothing that I actually want to see (I'll pass on seeing Michael Jackson's last moments in IMAX). For more box office, movie reviews, trailer reviews, news commentary, and original essays, go to Mendelson's Memos.

Scott Mendelson