Weekend Box Office (March 2 - 4, 2012)

by Gitesh Pandya

THIS WEEKEND Universal had cash registers ringing from coast to coast as its 3D animated smash The Lorax blasted past expectations to score the biggest opening of the year by far. The low-budget party film Project X, 2012's umpteenth overperformer, opened in second place with an impressive haul of its own. The one-two punch sent the North American box office soaring 25% ahead of the same weekend from last year continuing a boom year which has seen long lines at multiplexes.

Surging to an incredible $70.2M this weekend, according to final studio figures, The Lorax dominated the marketplace with the year's top opening. It was also the biggest bow for a Dr. Seuss film beating the $55.1M of 2000's How the Grinch Stole Christmas and overall, the fourth largest non-sequel animated debut ever trailing the $74M of 2007's The Simpsons Movie, the $70.5M of The Incredibles, and the $70.3M of Finding Nemo. That puts Lorax ahead of such recent 3D toons from power players Pixar and DreamWorks as Cars 2 ($66.1M), Kung Fu Panda 2 ($47.7M), Up ($68.1M), and Monsters vs. Aliens ($59.3M) as well as Fox's Rio ($39.2M) and Universal's own Despicable Me ($56.4M). It was also the third largest opening in the month of March after Johnny Depp's colossal 3D hit Alice in Wonderland ($116.1M) which debuted this weekend two years ago during the post-Avatar boom and the 2007 smash 300 ($70.9M).

Lorax indeed played like a sequel bringing in parents familiar with the children's book and kids interested in a fun and colorful ride. The studio partnered with dozens of corporate brands that provided extra marketing muscle hitting the target audience from every possible direction thereby boosting awareness and excitement by Friday, which was also the birthday of Dr. Seuss. The opening day saw a solid $17.5M in ticket sales but Saturday witnessed a spending surge climbing 79% to an incredible $31.3M. Most films this time of year never come close to that for the entire weekend. Sunday dropped 32% to $21.4M. Produced for $70M, Lorax averaged a sensational $18,830 from 3,729 theaters.

The road ahead looks bright for the Danny DeVito-voiced pic which should find its way across the $200M domestic barrier plus solid overseas sales. Audiences polled by CinemaScore gave the toon a glowing A grade plus there are no major new releases aimed at younger kids until the Snow White film Mirror Mirror at the very end of this new month. The Easter holiday in early April could also provide a boost if the film is still holding on then. Positive word-of-mouth from families should more than offset mixed reviews from critics. It's been a strong first quarter so far for Universal which already scored number one action hits with Contraband and Safe House.

Another of this year's low-budget, no-star vehicles had audiences opening their wallets as the party comedy Project X debuted with strength in second place with $21.1M from 3,055 locations for a solid $6,891 average. The R-rated film about three high schoolers that throw a wildly out of control party played mostly to older teens and young adults and an effective marketing campaign excited the target audience. The MPAA's rating description was essentially an invitation to high school and college students everywhere as the raunchfest was cited for "crude and sexual content throughout, nudity, drugs, drinking, pervasive language, reckless behavior and mayhem - all involving teens."

Project X cost a mere $12M to produce and Warner Bros. used Hangover producer Todd Philips' name in the marketing push to ensure that young adults knew they were in for some debauchery, only this time with characters too young to be concerned with getting married. Studio research showed that 67% of the crowd was under 25 while 58% were male. The CinemaScore grade was only a B, reviews were mostly negative, and Saturday sales dipped 6% from opening day so good legs are not expected. However, the modestly priced film will be a moneymaker and has continued the recent trend that has seen young adults come back to the multiplexes for their weekend entertainment.

Falling from its number one ranking last weekend but still holding up moderately well was the military training-video-turned-movie Act of Valor which declined by 45% to $13.6M. The Relativity release has banked an impressive $45.1M in just ten days and could be headed for a domestic finish of about $75M. Valor cost just $12M to produce and joins other low-cost 2012 hits like Project X, Chronicle, and The Devil Inside. Combined, the four films cost $27M to produce and will end up grossing north of $240M from North America alone. Of course, marketing costs were extra.

Denzel Washington's CIA thriller Safe House followed with $7.4M, down only 32%, for a solid $108.4M cume for Universal. The film now ranks as the Oscar winning actor's third biggest grosser after the $130.2M for his bad guy role in American Gangster and the $115.7M for his good guy role in Remember the Titans. Tyler Perry's latest pic Good Deeds tumbled 55% to $7M for a ten-day tally of $25.8M. Look for Lionsgate to end its run with about $38M ranking among his lowest performers.

With lots of kids fleeing to see The Lorax, the adventure hit Journey 2: The Mysterious Island fell harder than before dropping 51% to $6.5M in its fourth round. Warner Bros. has taken in $85.2M to date and should be able to break $100M domestically. Sony's romance blockbuster The Vow held up well dropping 39% to $6M boosting the total to $111.6M. The Channing Tatum-Rachel McAdams hit is the top-grossing film of 2012, for now.

Fox's action-romance This Means War held up well again with $5.6M, off only 34% giving the Reese Witherspoon vehicle $41.4M to date. Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance fell 48% to $4.6M for $44.8M after 17 days. The Sony sequel is running 53% behind the pace of its 2007 predecessor though admissions are lagging even more since Spirit's take includes higher ticket prices and 3D surcharges. Universal's Wanderlust rounded out the top ten with an estimated $3.8M, off 41%, for a $12.5M sum.

The Weinstein Co. nearly doubled the screen count of its Oscar champ The Artist and almost jumped into the top ten for the first time in its 15th week of play. But that didn't mean the silent film connected with a more mainstream crowd. The Best Picture winner added 790 runs and grossed $3.6M from 1,756 locations for a dull $2,065 average. Despite the 82% increase in screens, the weekend gross rose just 25% putting the total at $36.8M. Though a low-budget production, The Artist was backed by an extensive and expensive marketing campaign over the past few months that simultaneously targeted consumers as well as industry voters. Adding hundreds of new prints and backing them with national advertising doesn't come cheap either. A final domestic gross in the $45-50M range may result.

Other Oscar winners tried to parlay statues into extra box office receipts. Original Screenplay champ The Descendants dropped 39% to $1.3M pushing the total to a hearty $80.4M for Fox Searchlight. It is now 2011's top-grossing Best Picture nominee released during the most competitive fourth quarter. Hugo, the most expensive of the top contenders and a winner of five Oscars, dipped only 18% to $1.2M for a $71.3M cume to date. Both films lost screens this weekend.

Also shedding a few playdates, but enjoying a healthy 22% surge from last weekend, was Meryl Streep's The Iron Lady with $850,909. The double winner for Best Actress and Makeup generated more interest from adult audiences and added a bit to The Weinstein Company's total which is now $27M.

The Academy Award winners in the foreign language and documentary categories both expanded to capitalize on the added publicity. Iran's A Separation added 160 screens and saw its weekend take jump 160% to $952,051 for a $3.7M sum and $3,918 average for Sony Classics. The football doc Undefeated expanded from five to 13 theaters and collected $82,230 giving The Weinstein Co. a $6,325 average and cume of $164,058 early in its run.

The top ten films grossed $145.9M which was up 28% from last year when Rango opened in the top spot with $38.1M; but down 20% from 2010 when Alice in Wonderland debuted at number one with $116.1M.

Compared to projections, The Lorax soared above my $46M forecast and Project X opened a couple of notches ahead of my $18M prediction.

Get earlier box office updates and analysis by following BoxOfficeGuru.com on Twitter.

Watch the NEW trailer for The Avengers and check the UPDATED chart for the Oscar Nominees and Grosses.

For a review of Safe House visit The Chief Report.

Be sure to check back on Thursday for a complete summary, including projections, for next weekend when John Carter, Silent House, and A Thousand Words all open.

Marketplace - Shop for DVDs, electronics, books, and posters at discounted prices:

# Title Mar 2 - 4 Feb 24 - 26 % Chg. Theaters Weeks AVG Cumulative Distributor
1 The Lorax $ 70,217,070 3,729 1 $ 18,830 $ 70,217,070 Universal
2 Project X 21,051,363 3,055 1 6,891 21,051,363 Warner Bros.
3 Act of Valor 13,572,578 24,476,632 -44.5 3,053 2 4,446 45,111,924 Relativity
4 Safe House 7,390,935 10,926,145 -32.4 2,553 4 2,895 108,355,425 Universal
5 Good Deeds 7,047,061 15,583,924 -54.8 2,132 2 3,305 25,791,693 Lionsgate
6 Journey 2: The Mysterious Island 6,547,374 13,389,102 -51.1 3,060 4 2,140 85,233,873 Warner Bros.
7 The Vow 6,011,147 9,916,774 -39.4 2,826 4 2,127 111,623,496 Sony
8 This Means War 5,561,323 8,425,010 -34.0 2,342 3 2,375 41,399,962 Fox
9 Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance 4,645,637 9,006,135 -48.4 2,487 3 1,868 44,826,376 Sony
10 Wanderlust 3,843,840 6,526,650 -41.1 2,002 2 1,920 12,484,655 Universal
11 The Artist 3,625,571 2,905,858 24.8 1,756 15 2,065 36,813,989 Weinstein Co.
12 Gone 3,001,862 4,770,360 -37.1 2,186 2 1,373 8,949,839 Summit
13 Chronicle 1,931,431 3,685,036 -47.6 1,054 5 1,832 60,846,697 Fox
14 The Secret World of Arrietty 1,484,644 4,351,115 -65.9 1,431 3 1,037 16,753,024 Disney
15 The Descendants 1,291,817 2,133,442 -39.4 694 16 1,861 80,392,543 Fox Searchlight
16 Hugo 1,233,618 1,510,760 -18.3 406 15 3,038 71,300,195 Paramount
17 The Woman in Black 1,154,475 2,722,485 -57.6 812 5 1,422 52,241,390 CBS
18 Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace 3D 1,100,446 3,174,955 -65.3 731 4 1,505 42,218,779 Fox
19 A Separation 952,051 366,330 159.9 243 10 3,918 3,677,464 Sony Classics
20 The Iron Lady 850,909 694,982 22.4 511 10 1,665 27,006,913 Weinstein Co.
Top 5 $ 119,279,007 $ 74,292,577 60.6
Top 10 145,888,328 107,371,847 35.9
Top 20 162,515,152 126,105,468 28.9
Top 20 vs. 2011 162,515,152 129,137,807 25.8

Last Updated: March 5, 2012 at 6:15PM ET

Watch Gitesh Pandya's weekly box office preview on CNN International airing live each Thursday at 7:40pm ET.