Weekend Box Office (March 18 - 20, 2011)

by Gitesh Pandya

THIS WEEKEND The paranoia-fueled action thriller Limitless led a trio of new releases and opened at number one with a sturdy debut. The crime drama The Lincoln Lawyer and the road comedy Paul both attracted respectable business landing in the top five but the overall marketplace once again failed to match up to last year's levels.

Relativity Media's new distribution operation scored its first top spot bow with the Bradley Cooper drama Limitless which premiered on top with $18.9M, according to final studio figures, finishing a few notches above industry expectations. The fast-paced thriller about a washed up writer who finds wealth and success after taking a top-secret drug that unleashes the full power of his brain averaged a solid $6,860 from 2,756 theaters and played well to adults of both genders. Produced for $30M, the PG-13 film marked the first hit for Cooper as a leading man after numerous wins at the box office in ensemble pics, most notably 2009's sleeper smash The Hangover. Robert De Niro co-starred.

Audience research showed that cross-gender appeal was strong as females only slightly outnumbered males with 52% of the crowd. 60% was 25 and over while 57% was non-Caucasian. Despite heavy competition for adults right now, Limitless connected with its target audience thanks to an effective marketing push that included a high-profile TV spot during the Super Bowl over a month ago.

Holding steady in second place in its third weekend of play was Johnny Depp's animated comedy Rango which slipped only 33% to $15.1M. After 17 days the Paramount release has tallied an impressive $92.3M and will break nine digits by the end of the week becoming the bankable actor's sixth $100M+ hit over the last eight years.

Depp and Cooper will again face each other over Memorial Day weekend when The Hangover II opens against the second session of Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides. The debut of Kung Fu Panda 2 over the sequel-filled holiday will put Paramount in the mix too with another toon.

With three new male-led films entering the marketplace, the military actioner Battle: Los Angeles took a huge hit tumbling 59% to $14.5M for third place. Produced for $70M, the Sony release has amassed an impressive $60.5M in its first ten days and looks headed for the $80-90M range.

Matthew McConaughey's courtroom drama The Lincoln Lawyer opened to respectable results in fourth with $13.2M playing to an older adult audience. Lionsgate's R-rated pic averaged $4,879 from 2,707 theaters and was well-liked by critics which helped its chances at the box office given its older skew. Ryan Phillippe, Marisa Tomei, and William H. Macy also were part of the cast. The distributor won some industry press with its promotion with discount finder Groupon which allowed users to buy tickets for only $6. For the sake of box office reporting, Lionsgate used full ticket values and not the actual discounted price paid by consumers.

The alien comedy Paul debuted close behind in fifth with $13M from 2,802 sites for a decent $4,655 average. Starring Simon Pegg and Nick Frost of Shaun of the Dead fame, the R-rated road picture also featured Seth Rogen voicing the title character. Studio research showed that the audience was 56% male and 58% 25 and older. Reviews were generally positive. Universal began the global release a month ago with its United Kingdom bow and has grossed $28.1M overseas so far.

The fairy tale remake Red Riding Hood fell 49% to $7.2M in its second weekend giving Warner Bros. $25.9M in ten days. A final total of around $40M seems likely. Matt Damon's The Adjustment Bureau followed with $5.8M, off 50%, putting Universal at $48.6M to date.

After a weak opening, the 3D toon Mars Needs Moms enjoyed a good sophomore hold slipping only 23% to $5.3M thanks to no new competition. But the Disney film stands at just $15.4M after ten days and looks set to end its run with only $30M.

Off only 36% in ninth was the teen drama Beastly with $3.2M followed by the raunchy flick Hall Pass with $2.6M dropping 49%. Totals are $22.2M for the CBS Films pic and $39.6M for the Warner Bros. comedy.

In limited release, Fox Searchlight debuted the critically acclaimed Paul Giamatti comedy Win Win in just five theaters and grossed $150,362 for a strong $30,072 average. Focus expanded its period drama Jane Eyre from four to 26 locations and delivered $466,409 for a sturdy $17,939 average. The total stands at $719,514.

The top ten films grossed $98.8M which was down 11% from last year when Alice in Wonderland stayed in the top spot for a third time with $34.2M; but up 6% from 2009 when Knowing debuted at number one with $24.6M.

Compared to projections, Limitless debuted higher than my $14M forecast while The Lincoln Lawyer and Paul both debuted very close to my $12M prediction for each.

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

Check the box office chart for the Top March Openings. For a review of Battle: Los Angeles visit The Chief Report.

Be sure to check back on Thursday for a complete summary, including projections, for next weekend when Sucker Punch and Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Rodrick Rules both open.

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

# Title Mar 18 - 20 Mar 11 - 13 % Chg. Theaters Weeks AVG Cumulative Distributor
1 Limitless $ 18,907,302 2,756 1 $ 6,860 $ 18,907,302 Relativity
2 Rango 15,076,575 22,602,847 -33.3 3,843 3 3,923 92,338,691 Paramount
3 Battle: Los Angeles 14,538,429 35,573,187 -59.1 3,417 2 4,255 60,540,135 Sony
4 The Lincoln Lawyer 13,206,453 2,707 1 4,879 13,206,453 Lionsgate
5 Paul 13,043,310 2,802 1 4,655 13,043,310 Universal
6 Red Riding Hood 7,188,131 14,005,335 -48.7 3,030 2 2,372 25,895,514 Warner Bros.
7 The Adjustment Bureau 5,772,510 11,597,335 -50.2 2,660 3 2,170 48,619,550 Universal
8 Mars Needs Moms 5,316,620 6,914,488 -23.1 3,117 2 1,706 15,400,434 Disney
9 Beastly 3,198,478 5,021,232 -36.3 1,810 3 1,767 22,183,943 CBS Films
10 Hall Pass 2,568,334 5,011,020 -48.7 1,905 4 1,348 39,557,940 Warner Bros.
11 Gnomeo & Juliet 2,298,908 3,617,255 -36.4 1,748 6 1,315 93,587,290 Disney
12 Just Go With It 2,245,115 4,019,266 -44.1 1,708 6 1,314 97,964,324 Sony
13 The King's Speech 2,034,151 3,573,112 -43.1 1,249 17 1,629 132,476,381 Weinstein Co.
14 Unknown 1,279,351 3,366,339 -62.0 1,401 5 913 61,094,903 Warner Bros.
15 I Am Number Four 1,015,059 2,260,314 -55.1 955 5 1,063 52,616,849 Disney
16 Big Mommas: Like Father, Like Son 708,210 1,306,504 -45.8 550 5 1,288 36,407,678 Fox
17 Tangled 616,057 640,753 -3.9 334 17 1,844 197,714,178 Disney
18 Cedar Rapids 521,961 921,038 -43.3 462 6 1,130 5,475,316 Fox Searchlight
19 Justin Bieber: Never Say Never 470,465 1,378,830 -65.9 480 6 980 72,209,363 Paramount
20 Jane Eyre 466,409 182,885 155.0 26 2 17,939 719,514 Focus
Top 5 $ 74,772,069 $ 90,693,192 -17.6
Top 10 98,816,142 111,935,077 -11.7
Top 20 110,471,828 124,574,022 -11.3
Top 20 vs. 2010 110,471,828 122,679,353 -10.0

Last Updated: March 21, 2011 at 5:50PM ET

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