How 'Smurfs' Tied 'Cowboys & Aliens' at the Box Office

Universal Pictures; Sony Pictures

"Cowboys" played older -- and the kid pic drew a younger audience and had a "nostalgic pull" for fans of the '80s television show.

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.

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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 sizable 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.

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

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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.

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

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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 percent of the budget, and Universal and Relativity each putting up 25 percent.

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.

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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 stars 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.

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

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.