Weekend Box Office: The Smurfs , Cowboys and Aliens Do Battle, Tying With $36.2 Million, While Stupid Crazy Love Opens With $19.2 Million

This weekend is an excellent example of why it's the numbers, not the rankings that matter when discussing box office.  And, more importantly, the context of the numbers must be taken into account as well as the hard figures.  As of this moment,
The Smurfs
Cowboys & Aliens
are battling for the top slot at
's box office, with both films hovering at $36.2 million.  One cost $110 million while the other cost $165 million.  One has strong foreign prospects and a guarantee of eternal life as a family DVD purchase/rental, while the other faces an uncertain future as it belongs to a distinctly American genre.  Point being,
The Smurfs
can take solace that it somewhat over-performed this weekend, while the Jon Favreau genre mash-up may go down as one of the bigger whiffs of the summer season.

Cowboys and Aliens opened with about $36.2 million this weekend, mostly on the strength of men over 25.  Sci-fi westerns are a tricky business, as (somewhat stereo typically speaking perhaps) western fans don't like sci-fi while science-fiction geeks aren't fans of the classic westerns.  Of course, neither Wild, Wild West or Jonah Hex were very good, and Cowboys and Aliens received some shockingly poor reviews.  The film received a weak reception from its world premiere at Comic Con last weekend, something that the many powerful people behind the film (director Favreau, producers Steven Spielberg and Ron Howard, etc) were not expecting.  Since the film was targeting older audiences as much as the stereotypical geeks, the reviews did matter in this case.  The film has a Cinemascore grade of a B+, which is a little low for such apparently mainstream entertainment.

As far as long term marketing, it was a clear case of not quitting while you're ahead (see past perpetrators of this crime).  I loved the teaser from last November, but was less and less impressed with each new trailer.  More importantly, the several additional trailers were basically the same footage re-cut.  It's nice that Universal didn't blatantly spoil the whole film in the ad campaign, but using nearly identical footage cut up slightly differently for six months gave the impression that the bag was empty.  Universal should have just gone with the terrific teaser and kept a certain amount of 'mystery'.  This is alas, another apparent miss for Universal, all the more unfortunate in that it was an 'original' property (it was based on a very cultish comic book).  Results like this are why Universal passed on The Dark Tower and In the Mountains of Madness (not that I disagree with those calls).  When Universal whiffs on one ambitious original property after another and (presumably) scores a hit next summer with Battleship (hilarious teaser HERE), what lessons can we expect them to take?

Also estimating $36.2 million, the other theoretical contender for the weekend crown is
The Smurfs
, which is of course the CGI/live action adaptation of the popular cartoon series that ran from 1981-1989 on NBC.  Ironically, NBC and Universal are now owned by the came corporate overlord, but this was a Sony production.  This was another example of the formula spawned by
Alvin and the Chipmunks
back in December of 2007.  Take a popular kids cartoon from the 1970s or 1980s, insert expensive CGI-animated versions of the title characters into an otherwise cheap live-action melodrama (often the same plot actually).  The
Alvin and the Chipmunks
films grossed $361 million and $443 million worldwide respectively, while
Yogi Bear
(which really should have been an R-rated monster film) earned $201 million for Warner Bros. last December.  Of course, things that start cheap gradually grow more expensive, and this new incarnation inexplicably cost $110 million (hoary for Jayma Mays for getting $20 million...?).

We pundits and critics of course decry this kind of film as the epitome of what's wrong with mainstream Hollywood.  But while that may be true, it's also a reminder that many moviegoers don't treat cinema as a hobby or a profession or a passion, merely as a diversion (the film pulled an A- from Cinemascore, with an A from those under-18).  65% of the audience was kids with their parents.  65% of that audience were families with kids under 12, with 2/3 of the overall audience being female (IE - dad stayed home).  I'm may be taking my kid to see this one this week because she wants to see it, plain and simple.  And while it may be terrible, if she laughs, I'll survive.  The Miyazaki marathons can come when she's a little older.  But this does prove the value of 3D.  Point being, this tie-game wouldn't even be a contest without the 3D variable.  In 3D, Cowboys and Aliens would have grossed about $42 million.  In just 2D, The Smurfs would have grossed about $30 million.  Come what may, 3D is not going anywhere.

The other major opener was Crazy, Stupid Love which rode a great trailer and decent reviews to a  fine $19.2 million debut.  That's actually a bit under the various R-rated comedy openings this summer, but the film was clearly playing to older audiences, the ones who didn't quite show up as expected for Larry Crowne.  The all-star romantic comedy (Steve Carell, Julianne Moore, Kevin Bacon, Marissa Tomei, Emma Stone, Ryan Gosling, etc) was primarily advertised by Warner Bros using a series of snapshot posters, taking scenes from the film and labeling them (IE - "This is Crazy", "This is Love", etc).  Even if the older audience doesn't give the film exceptional legs, this picture cost just $45 million so long-term profitability is all-but assured.  I'll probably see the film tomorrow, as it's the featured 'bring your baby to the movies' pick at Pacific Theaters.

For more box office info, including a major milestone for Harry Potter and the solid debut of a critically-acclaimed alien invasion import from Britain, read PART II of this weekend's box office in review.

Scott Mendelson