Weekend Box Office (September 16 - 18, 2011)

by Gitesh Pandya

THIS WEEKEND Just as it did 17 years ago when the original version first hit theaters, the new updated conversion The Lion King 3D opened in first place ruling the North American box office. Doubling industry expectations, the Disney smash grossed much more than the weekend's three other new films combined. The action drama Drive generated a moderate debut in third while the thriller Straw Dogs and the comedy I Don't Know How She Does It both failed to excite moviegoing audiences.

Families charged into theaters and had no problem paying higher ticket prices driving The Lion King 3D to number one with $30.2M, accordng to final studio figures, making it the fourth best September debut of all time. Averaging a spectacular $12,941 from only 2,330 theaters, the G-rated upgrade of the highest-grossing hand-drawn toon of all time sparked nostalgia in parents allowing Disney to reach a whole new generation. The two-week-only run precedes the October 4 release of the film on Blu-ray 3D but plenty of people were willing to go out and experience the new version on the big screen. Studio research showed that King played to an audience that was 56% female and 59% 25 and under. The opening weekend average beat out those for recent 3D kidpics like Kung Fu Panda 2, Rio, and The Smurfs.

Simba and pals outdid the $12.5M opening of Disney's 3D upgrade on the double feature of Toy Story and Toy Story 2 which opened in October 2009 ahead of the following summer's third installment in 3D which became the top-grossing movie of 2010. Despite home video availability, the Mouse House has found success in giving 3D upgrades to top animated films in its library and releasing them as special theatrical events. With a first class brand and no major competition for kids, Lion King connected with its target audience and generated true excitement which helped the numbers soar. The original film bowed to $40.9M in June 1994 (the largest opening that year) when the average ticket price was only $4.17.

The virus thriller Contagion enjoyed a solid second weekend grossing $14.5M falling just 35% in its sophomore frame. The Warner Bros. release has taken in $44.3M in its first ten days and looks headed for a $80M finish.

Ryan Gosling's critically acclaimed crime drama Drive opened in third place with $11.3M from an aggressive 2,886 theater launch for a mild $3,929 average. While critics fell in love with the violent R-rated pic, paying audiences on Friday were unhappy with what they saw giving it a disturbing C- CinemaScore grade. FilmDistrict marketed Drive with trailers and TV spots that promised a fast-paced high octane thrill ride. But ticket buyers were surprised when what they got was a slow-paced drama with few car chases. The road ahead is uncertain as word-of-mouth will spread from two opposing camps - those disappointed that they didn't get what they expected and those who enjoy daring cinema with slower European sensibilities. Danish helmer Nicolas Winding Refn won the best director prize at this year's Cannes Film Festival for Drive.

Sleeper sensation The Help followed in fourth with $6.5M, down 27%, for a $147.4M cume. The Disney release will break through the $150M barrier in the next week as it continues to display strong legs now becoming the only film in 2011 to spend six weekends in the Top 5.

The weekend's two other new releases were rejected by moviegoers. The James Marsden-Kate Bosworth thriller Straw Dogs debuted to $5.1M from 2,408 locations for a wimpy $2,128 average for Sony. Females made up 51% of the audience while 54% were 25 or older. Sarah Jessica Parker's new comedy I Don't Know How She Does It failed to pull in fans of the book with $4.4M bow from 2,476 theaters resulting in a pathetic $1,778 average for The Weinstein Co. Critics panned both films.

Dropping 38% to $2.9M was The Debt which has grossed $26.6M to date for Focus. The well-reviewed action drama Warrior collected an estimated $2.9M, off 45%, for a disappointing $10M ten-day sum for Lionsgate. Fox's Rise of the Planet of the Apes fared well again dipping 32% to $2.7M while Sony's Colombiana declined by 41% to $2.3M. Totals stand at $171.7M and $33.4M.

The top ten films grossed $82.9M which was off 2% from last year when The Town opened in the top spot with $23.8M; and even with 2009 when Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs debuted at number one with $30.3M.

Compared to projections, The Lion King 3D doubled my $14M forecast while Drive was very close to my $12M prediction. I Don't Know How She Does It debuted below my $9M projection while Straw Dogs was close to my $7M forecast.

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

Watch the NEW trailer for The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn - Part 1. For a review of Contagion visit The Chief Report.

Be sure to check back on Thursday for a complete summary, including projections, for next weekend when Abduction, Moneyball, Killer Elite and Dolphin Tale all open.

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

# Title Sep 16 - 18 Sep 9 - 11 % Chg. Theaters Weeks AVG Cumulative Distributor
1 The Lion King 3D $ 30,151,614 2,330 1 $ 12,941 $ 30,151,614 Disney
2 Contagion 14,548,433 22,403,596 -35.1 3,222 2 4,515 44,260,524 Warner Bros.
3 Drive 11,340,461 2,886 1 3,929 11,340,461 FilmDistrict
4 The Help 6,513,039 8,926,142 -27.0 3,014 6 2,161 147,439,793 Disney
5 Straw Dogs 5,123,760 2,408 1 2,128 5,123,760 Sony
6 I Don't Know How She Does It 4,402,201 2,476 1 1,778 4,402,201 Weinstein Co.
7 The Debt 2,942,631 4,772,045 -38.3 1,831 3 1,607 26,564,431 Focus
8 Warrior 2,860,325 5,242,107 -45.4 1,883 2 1,519 10,002,625 Lionsgate
9 Rise of the Planet of the Apes 2,658,131 3,886,285 -31.6 2,340 7 1,136 171,651,537 Fox
10 Colombiana 2,330,291 3,947,582 -41.0 1,933 4 1,206 33,377,523 Sony
11 Shark Night 3D 1,801,701 3,408,413 -47.1 2,082 3 865 17,310,402 Relativity
12 Spy Kids: All the Time in the World 1,590,367 2,501,432 -36.4 1,650 5 964 36,107,734 Weinstein Co.
13 Crazy, Stupid, Love 1,566,182 2,261,572 -30.7 1,145 7 1,368 80,736,273 Warner Bros.
14 Our Idiot Brother 1,294,791 2,650,538 -51.1 1,747 4 741 23,672,210 Weinstein Co.
15 The Smurfs 1,243,268 1,800,432 -30.9 1,419 8 876 137,593,881 Sony
16 Kevin Hart: Laugh At My Pain 1,190,756 1,908,420 -37.6 230 2 5,177 3,598,262 Code Black
17 Don't Be Afraid of the Dark 1,124,591 2,166,846 -48.1 1,334 4 843 22,783,502 FilmDistrict
18 Apollo 18 1,097,433 2,851,349 -61.5 1,795 3 611 16,885,842 Weinstein Co.
19 Harry Potter / Deathly Hallows Part 2 700,498 1,001,583 -30.1 601 9 1,166 378,180,621 Warner Bros.
20 Captain America 563,946 845,653 -33.3 540 8 1,044 174,301,520 Paramount
Top 5 $ 67,677,307 $ 45,291,472 49.4
Top 10 82,870,886 60,589,489 36.8
Top 20 95,044,419 73,958,144 28.5
Top 20 vs. 2010 95,044,419 94,444,473 0.6

Last Updated: September 19, 2011 at 5:30PM ET

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