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Your Box Office Explained: Transformers: Dark of the Moon Demolishes the Long Weekend

This Weekend’s Winner: Transformers: Dark of the Moon, making an estimated $157 million over five days.

This Weekend’s Losers: Movie stars as counterprogramming; specifically, Julia Roberts and Tom Hanks in Universal's Larry Crowne. Despite showing up in nearly 3,000 theaters, it grossed just $13 million. Also: Cars 2 ($25.1 million) losing nearly two thirds of its audience (62 percent!) — the sharpest second-weekend plunge in the history of Pixar.

How It All Went Down: For the first time in a while, more people than not were willing to pay to see a movie in 3-D, with Transformers: Dark of the Moon grabbing 60 percent of its gross from 3-D engagements. Compare that with recent 3-D outings like Cars 2, Green Lantern, Kung Fu Panda, and Pirates of the Caribbean, all of which convinced only 40 percent of their audience to fork over extra cash for the 3-D head gear.

But even though it's a wild success — the ninth highest-grossing five-day opening ever and the best Fourth of July opening ever, a number boosted by the movie's 3-D Day–like opening on 9,300 screens in over 4,000 locations — Dark of the Moon's estimated attendance is actually behind the first Transformers by over 10 percent.

Dark of the Moon represents the limits of what 3-D can do for box office. That is, it can add quite a lot to a movie’s grosses — last year, 3-D surcharges alone accounted for some $600 million of Hollywood’s $10.5 billion box-office total — but often at the expense of moviegoing overall. Last year, attendance at the movies fell to a fifteen-year low. (What's more, all those exorbitant 3-D surcharges still didn't make up for the drop in revenues. Hollywood finished out the year $30 million behind 2009.)

For movies unlike Transformers: Dark of the Moon, where 3-D is considered nonessential, consumers are avoiding it. This past weekend 3-D grosses for Cars 2 accounted for a little more than a third (35 percent) of the Cars 2 take, compared with 40 percent last weekend. People don’t just want 3-D; they want movies made for 3-D. If they look even greater in 3-D, audiences will think about shelling out. If not, they’re not going to pay more just to find it wanting it in three dimensions.