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your box office explained

Your Box Office Explained: You Can’t Call Paranormal Activity 4 Anything Other Than a Success

This Weekend’s Winners: The fourth Paranormal Activity showed that the franchise could still generate otherworldly profits for Paramount Pictures, finishing first with $30.2 million. Meanwhile, Warner Bros.’ Argo conceded barely 15 percent of its opening weekend, prompting unalloyed praise even from the fiercest of rival studio execs for its second place finish with $16.6 million.

Honorable Mention: Similarly, CBS Films’ macabre comedy Seven Psychopaths gave up barely a fifth of its second weekend audience, a sign that positive word-of-mouth is spreading despite its lackluster initial opening.

This Weekend’s Losers: Summit Entertainment’s Alex Cross found itself, well, crucified: $11.75 million from just over 2,500 theaters makes it the worst showing for a film starring Tyler Perry — ever.

How It All Went Down: Don’t believe the haters. This fourth Paranormal Activity is a financial success, notwithstanding sour reports elsewhere decrying it as a disappointment because it’s on track to be the lowest-grossing film of the franchise so far. So what? The head of distribution of a rival studio wrote to observe “while it may be waning domestically it is growing internationally” and calling it “an incredibly profitable piece of business.”

“Anyone who calls PA a flop is out of their minds,” e-mailed another, a top producer at a rival studio who was astonished by the negative coverage, adding, “Massive, massive and consistent returns for a franchise.”

The reason for the big disconnect? Tracking — the industry term for the tea-leaf-reading semi-science that studios rely upon to gauge whether they ought to go head-to-head with a release or scurry out of the way and live to fight another day. NRG/Nielsen Research had the fourth Paranormal opening in the high $40 million or low $50 million range, a terrifying prospect indeed for anyone who dared face it down. So no doubt, there is regret aplenty at studios that blanched. As one studio chief explained, “Let’s discuss the bigger ramifications of it only opening to $30 [million]: If we hadn't believed it would open to $50 [million], would any of the movies that were so crowded out last weekend have moved against it? Probably.”

Dividing its audience evenly between men and women, and skewing younger (60 percent under 25), a fifth (and possibly a spinoff) Paranormal will definitely come stomping loudly up the stairs next October.

The real mystery this weekend is what Alex Cross’s producers were thinking when they made a watered-down, PG-13 version of a bloody R-rated murder franchise. “They probably made it PG-13 in an attempt to tap into the Tyler Perry–Madea audience,” says one rival studio’s head of distribution. “They succeeded in that, but the movie is not a ‘Tyler Perry Presents’ movie, it's just him in a movie, which is a different beast.”

Backing that notion up are Alex Cross’s demographics: Its audience was 60 percent female, with more than two thirds (68 percent) over 35, and three quarters (74 percent) African-American — all of which, as Box Office Mojo aptly notes, “aligns with the typical Tyler Perry crowd.” In short, the Tyler Perry audience showed, but the much-larger universe of James Patterson fans did not. That the character’s originator, Morgan Freeman, was so beloved and successful didn’t help.

“Recasting a franchise character can be tricky, especially when the memory looms large,” said one studio chief, adding dryly, “Tyler Perry isn’t Morgan Freeman.” This chief goes on to say that the whole sad affair does much to weaken the argument that stars are stars regardless of genre. “This tests the whole notion of star crossover.”

Finally, a word of praise for Sony Pictures’ Hotel Transylvania, which is on track to eclipse The Smurfs as the highest-grossing animated film in the studio’s history — and at over half a billion dollars worldwide, that’s no small feat. Says one studio chief, “It has the secret sauce necessary for any animated movie to make it big: Parents think they can sit through it and be entertained instead of wanting to claw their eyeballs out.”

Photo: Donald Schwartz/Paramount Pictures