Your Box Office Explained: Pirates of the Caribbean Underperforms, But Still Wins the Weekend

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Photo: Walt Disney Pictures

This Weekend’s Winners: Clearly, a “stranger tide” lifts all boats, with crowds turned away from overpacked Pirates screenings determined to laugh at something. They found it in Bridesmaids, which hung on to 80 percent of its audience from last weekend. We’d like to point out: That’s even better than The Hangover, the bachelor party sex comedy to which its supposed to be the female antidote. Suck it, Wolfpack! Honorable Mention: Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris proves that Allen, maddeningly, still makes entertaining and enjoyable movies when he’s not making terrible ones. Audiences rewarded him with well more than half a million bucks from just six theaters. As Indiewire points out, that’s the best indie release in well over year — a better average, even, than The King’s Speech, last year’s highest-grossing indie opener.

This Weekend’s Losers: At first glance, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides would qualify, if you're just looking at the domestic numbers. It opened at $90 million — less than a fifth of its $420 million cost — leading some to brand it a disappointment relative to previous outings. But if you widen that lens, Disney will do just fine: The movie made an impressive $256 million internationally, meaning it's grossed $346 all told. So technically it's not a flop, but there's certainly some fatigue setting in with American audiences.

How It All Went Down: The great irony of the Pirates franchise was that it started as a movie based on a theme-park ride that transcended every cynical purpose it was built for. Sure, Families will come! Kids will buy Halloween costumes! It will spark a children’s birthday party cottage industry of Captain Jack Sparrow impersonators! but it was a genuinely enjoyable movie regardless of all the demos it hit. Then, the Disney sequel machinery clattered to life; even its star has said that he’s been confused by the last two films, admitting to Entertainment Weekly recently that he remembered “talking to Gore [Verbinski] at certain points during production of 2 or 3, and saying, ‘I don’t really know what this means.’ He said, ‘Neither do I, but let’s just shoot it.’”

Incomprehensible as previous plots may have been, understanding this version's success is fairly easy: The last Pirates opened to the equivalent of $131 million in 2007, so studios didn’t dare open anything against Stranger Tides, and so it carried the weekend by default.

Though Pirates is designed to be critic-proof (two out of three dislike this latest version), it’s starting to show its age, skewing both slightly older (54 percent over age 26) and male (also 54 percent) than previous installments. And for all its supposed potency of its brand, adjusted for inflation, the original Pirates of the Caribbean made just about the same amount — $92 million — in its five-day opening weekend that the vastly more expensive fourth Pirates just did this past weekend. No wonder, then, they went looking for the Fountain of Youth.

This article has been edited since its original posting.