THE WEEKEND’S WINNERS: Ben Affleck’s unlikely evolution into a serious - and seriously good - film director seems complete with Warner Bros.’ The Town ($23.8 million), which set the box office record for September - and it wasn’t even in 3D!
Honorable mention: Screen Gems’ Easy A ($18.2 million) may have borrowed liberally from the work of both Nathaniel Hawthorne and director John Hughes, but quality-hungry audiences proved they don’t really mind homages as long as you don’t insult your influences. And the documentary Catfish showed promise in limited release.
THE WEEKEND’S LOSERS: With Devil ($12.6 million), M. Night Shyamalan’s dismantling of his former reputation as a spine-tingling genius seems complete. And rather than boosting interest in I’m Still Here, the big reveal that Joaquin Phoenix’s descent into madness was staged seems to have evaporated any interest from moviegoers in seeing it.
HOW IT ALL WENT DOWN: Studios love to underestimate their films’ expected performances, freeing them to say with a straight face that a given release “exceeded expectations.” And The Town let Warner Bros do just that, as it opened with a brisk $8 million more than was expected.
It helped that that The Town sent all the right messages to grown-up audiences: Based on serious but accessible literary fiction? Check! Starring heavy-weight Oscar- and Emmy-nominated actors, served with a slice of Gossip Girl cheesecake for dessert? Check! Premieres at the Venice and Toronto Film Festivals — and very advanced screenings for critics? Check, check!!!
Even more remarkable, however, is that The Town did this well with an R rating: If Affleck’s Town hadn’t connected with adult audiences, it likely wouldn’t have connected with anyone at all. (In the end, it received a Cinemascore rating of B+, but with men giving it an A-.)
Meanwhile, Sony/Screen Gems went aggressively for the other end of the demographic spectrum with Easy A: Almost half of its audience (49%) was under the age of 18, and more than two-thirds of it (67%) was female. But with critics raving about the understated comedic star turn of Emma Stone (Zombieland), that may well broaden out in weeks to come.
Finally, what can be said about the dark night of M. Night’s soul? Universal paid an even-then astonishing $27 million to Media Rights Capital for the worldwide rights to Devil back in October 2008, and that was after 2006’s disastrous The Lady in the Water.
This weekend it was like Shyamalan and Affleck were proving the law of conservation of success — no good fortune in Hollywood shall be created or destroyed — as their careers seem to be flip-flopping at the exact same rate. In 2002 Shyamalan appeared on the cover of Newsweek next to the headline, “The New Spielberg,” while Affleck was planning or shooting Paycheck, Gigli, and Daredevil for release the next year; his acting career sputtered to a halt shortly thereafter. Now Shyamalan’s trailers are getting snickered at, and Affleck is scoring, with still one more Oscar-buzz movie (Company Man, in which he just acts) set to open this year.
Meanwhile, In the specialty market, the Relativity/Rogue Picture thriller Catfish (endorsed by Brett Ratner, so it’s, um, got to be good!) managed to reel in some impressive numbers: Over the past three days, the thriller with the Sundance pedigree hauled in just over $178,000 playing at just 12 theaters. That’s a little over $21,000 per theater, which is a strong start; next weekend, it will expand into 19 additional markets.
And what a difference removing all ambiguity makes: Casey Affleck’s not-umentary of Joaquin Phoenix, I’m Still Here, got an even bigger haircut than its star: Last weekend, before Affleck ‘fessed up to their performance art hoax, I’m Still Here was in just 20 theaters, but grossed a decent $100,000 — $5,000 per theater. This weekend, it added a hundred theaters, but grossed only $115,000, for a new per-screen average of $953. That’s an 80% decline compared to opening weekend and proof that King Solomon was right: Better to remain silent and be thought a fool, than to open your mouth and remove all doubt. (No wonder we had to get the Exhibitor Relations stats from a rival studio — we wouldn’t be supplying them, either.)