Box Office Shocker: 'Cowboys & Aliens' Gets Smurfed

9:01 AM PST 07/31/2011 by Pamela McClintock

"Cowboys" and "The Smurfs" tie for the weekend box office crown at $36.2 mil each; Steve Carell-Ryan Gosling comedy lands at No. 5 with $19.3 mil.

In one of the biggest box office upsets in recent memory, Sony’s 3D kids pic The Smurfs tied with DreamWorks/Universal’s Cowboys & Aliens for No. 1 in North America, with each pic estimating a $36.2 million opening. The winner won’t be decided until Monday morning.

Heading into the weekend, Cowboys held a wide lead over the competition in tracking, with Universal predicting a debut close to $45 million. The disappointing launch means the film—directed by Jon Favreau and costing $163 million to produce after rebates—will need especially strong legs.

Smurfs, costing $110 million to make, was only expected to open in the $25 million to $30 million range. The movie’s standout performance is a sizeable victory for Sony Pictures and Sony Pictures Animation, which partnered on the CGI/live-action hybrid, as well as for Sony chairman-CEO Michael Lynton, who picked up the project out of turnaround from Paramount.

Steve Carell-Ryan Gosling comedy Crazy, Stupid, Love, the weekend’s other new entry, placed No. 5. The PG-13 comedy opened to a solid $19.3 million, largely on the strength of older females. Slightly more than 70% of the audience was over the age of 25, while 64% were females.

Cowboys, starring Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford, played even older, likely explaining why the film underperformed. It also wasn’t helped by a B CinemaScore (Smurfs received an A-; Crazy Stupid Love, a B+). Of those turning out for Cowboys, 75% were over the age of 25—and 39% over the age of 50.

Playing older was always a risk, considering the film is a blend of two genres: Westerns, which skew older, and sci-fi.

Cowboys couldn’t have better pedigree. Stacey Snider and Steven Spielberg’s DreamWorks oversaw production and co-financed the $163 million pic with Universal and Ryan Kavanaugh’s Relativity Media. Brian Grazer and Ron Howard’s Imagine Entertainment also produced the film.

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The film’s financial success will depend upon good legs and a top performance overseas, where it is rolling out slowly.

Smurfs cost $110 million to produce, and is the latest entry in the CGI/live-action market. The pic received an A- CinemaScore, and A among moviegoers under the age of 18.

“This was a unique and fresh concept, and Universal was always committed full-board to the project,” Universal president of domestic distribution Nikki Rocco said.

The movie’s financial risk was spread out, with DreamWorks putting up 50% of the budget, and Universal and Relativity each putting up 25%.

Cowboys hasn’t begun rolling out overseas, where it will need to be a strong performer. Generally speaking, high-concept films can do big business at the international box office.

One reason cited for Smurfs’ surprising strength is the nostalgia factor.

Based on the comic books and wildly popular 1980s television show, Smurfs stars was directed by Raja Gosnell, and star Neil Patrick Harris, Jayma Mays and Hank Azaria. The voice cast is led by Jonathan Winters, Katy Perry and Anton Yelchin.

“There was a lot of smurf love going on. And there’s no doubt a nostalgic pull,” said Sony president of worldwide distribution Rory Bruer.

While the 3D toon received an A- CinemaScore overall, moviegoers under the age of 18 gave it an A. Of those buying tickets, 65% were families, while 35% were general moviegoers. Within the family demo, 40% were parents of kids under the age of 12. The 3D market also was relatively strong for the film, with 45% of the grosses coming from 3D theaters.

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Sony believes Smurfs will have strong legs throughout August. The movie also is off to a notable start overseas, where it opened in Spain this weekend to $2.7 million.

Other headlines included Paramount and Marvel’s Captain America: The First Avenger, which jumped the $100 million mark in its second weekend at the domestic box office. The 3D superhero pic fell 62% to an estimated $24.9 million for a domestic cume of $116.8 million and coming in No. 3.

Overseas, Captain America did notable business as it began rolling out in earnest. The pic grossed $48.5 million frm 30 territories for an international cume of $53.5 million and worldwide total of $170.3 million. Some had questioned whether the film, because its title, would catch on internationally. 

Up next was Warner Bros.’ Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2, which jumped the $1 billion mark at the worldwide box office over the weekend, becoming the top grossing film in the franchise. Domestically, Deathly Hallows came in No. 4, grossing $21.9 million for a cume of $318.5 million, besting the $317.6 million by previous best Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. The pic has earned $690 million internationally as of Sunday, for a world total of $1.01 billion.

Parmount’s Transformers: Dark of the Moon should become a member of the $1 billion club within days, and is already the 10th top grossing film of all time, as well as best title in the franchise. The threequel’s domestic cume through Sunday was $337.9 million, while it grossed $42 million for the weekend overseas for a foreign total of $645 million and global cume of $983 million. 

There also was plenty of action at the specialty market, as a slew of high-profile titles opened, including Sony/Screen Gems’ own alien pic, Attack the Block, about a group of inner-city London kids who battle extra-terrestrials.

Opening in five locations, Attack the Block grossed $130,000 for a so-so location average of $16,250.

Lionsgate’s The Devil’s Double, featuring a standout performance by Dominic Cooper as Uday Hussein’s body double, fared better, grossing an estimated $95,000 from five locations for a theater average of $19,000.

Sony Pictures Classics’ The Guard, starring Brendan Gleeson and Don Cheadle, opened to an estimated $80,398 from four locations for a location average of $20,100, while Roadside Attractions’ critically acclaimed The Future, written, directed by and starring Miranda July, opened to a $28,185 at the IFC Center in New York. 

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