North American box office: ‘Paranormal Activity’ performs supernaturally

The little horror movie that could just keeps on keeping on:

1. Paranormal Activity: $21.1 million (2nd week in wide release; more than doubled its number of screens; up 8%)
2. Saw VI: $14.1 million (NEW)
3. Where the Wild Things Are: $14 million (2nd week; drops 57%)
4. Law Abiding Citizen: $12.4 million (2nd week; drops 41%)
5. Couples Retreat: $10.6 million (3rd week; drops 38%)

actual numbers, not estimates
There are lessons in the story from the multiplexes this weekend, if only Hollywood will hear them. I won’t hold my breath waiting for that to happen, but still.

Lesson 1: Audiences really do crave novelty, or at least pseudo novelty. Paranormal Activity owes a lot to lots of movies that have come before it, but at least it looked and felt really, really different from the slick, shiny, processed product that clutters our screens. Love the movie or hate it, I don’t think you can deny that there’s something fresh about it. Lesson 1-a: Platform releasing still works, and maybe it works even better today, when the Internet can send word of mouth around the planet in days, and for next to nothing in marketing costs. Lesson 1-a-i: If you make movies people want to see, the word of mouth will be good, and something you’ll want spread around, instead of something you have to control and corral lest it poison a movie’s performance. (In other words, if your marketing plan relies on keeping honest word of your product from reaching your potential customer, you might want to rethink your product.)

Lesson 2: Franchises burn out if you don’t do something new with them. Five iterations of a game-playing psycho appears to have been enough for torture-porn fans. (Box Office Mojo notes that after the first Saw, all films in the franchise prior to this one opened over $30 million.)

Lesson 3: Cheap movies with built-in audiences who get catered to are good. Expensive movies with built-in audiences who are ignored are bad. Now, sure, I know this contradicts Lesson 2, because even though Saw VI earned only $14 million this weekend, it’s already more than earned back its paltry budget of $11 million. But Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are is never going to earn back its $100 million budget. It’s sorta of stunning, actually, that someone let Spike Jonze spend that much money on a Spike Jonze film. Spike Jonze films cost $13 million (Being John Malkovich) or $19 million (Adaptation) and they earn about $22 million. I’ve often complained about innovative and creative filmmakers who’ve made fascinating small films who then go to Hollywood and get so watered down that you wonder why anyone bothered… but this is just as bad. I’d rather see the Wild Things movie Jonze might have made for $20 million than see Hollywood give up on making innovative and creative and unexpected movies for $100 million because — they’ll tell themselves based on the evidence of this one — they don’t make money. And it does annoy audiences when they expect — and not unjustifiably so! — that a movie based on a kids’ book will be a movie for kids.

Lesson 4: Give audiences what they want, and don’t lie to them about what a movie is, and they will go see it, and tell their friends to go see. I may not like Law Abiding Citizen or Couples Retreat, but I cannot deny that the movies were marketed as exactly what they are, and so they opened big and are holding strong. Even The Stepfather dropped only 46 percent in its second week, from which we can guess that people looking for a stupid remake of a dumb horror flick got what they were looking for.

Lesson 5: Make bland movies that look bland and sound bland, and bland receptions is what you’ll get. Astro Boy and Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant crashed and sucked in their debuts, coming in at, respectively, Nos. 6 and 7, with takings of $6.7 million and $6.3 million. Which is probably more than either of them deserved. $40 million to make Freak, which wouldn’t even look overblown as a TV pilot? That’s a criminal waste of money.

It’s almost hard to believe that Amelia also cost $40 million: it looks a lot more expensive. And though it clocked in for the overall weekend way down at No. 1, it had the second best per-screen average among wide releases: $4,761 at each of 820 locations. Only Paranormal Activity was better: $10,850 at each of 1,945 locations. Overall, though, it was limited releases with the very best per-screens: Antichrist, with $11,900 on each of six screens, and An Education, with $11,851 on each of 31 screens.

[numbers via Box Office Mojo]

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