Weekend Box Office (September 23 - 25, 2011)

by Gitesh Pandya

THIS WEEKEND Multiplexes across North America were busier than normal for this time of year as the hit re-release The Lion King 3D held onto the number one spot for a second frame driving the box office to a new record high for the month of September. Moviegoers also lined up for Seven partners Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman as their new releases Moneyball and Dolphin Tale both debuted higher than expected in a close battle for second place. The Top 20 soared to a stellar $112M - a new record for the back-to-school month.

Thanks to a remarkable sophomore hold, The Lion King 3D ruled over the charts for a second weekend in a row just as the original blockbuster did back in June 1994. The G-rated re-release slipped only 27% and grossed $21.9M boosting its ten-day cume to a fantastic $61.5M, according to final studio figures. Despite intense competition for kids and parents, the Hakuna Matata pic remained wildly popular with a wide array of moviegoers allowing it to cling to the number one spot. King's lifetime total (including 2003's IMAX release) climbed to $390M putting it at number 12 on the list of all-time domestic blockbusters.

Stunted as a two-week-only event, the updated Lion King is scheduled to leave theaters this Thursday and hit Blu-ray 3D the following week on October 4. However, the studio's past two-week runs for Toy Story and Miley Cyrus films were extended and the same is expected for Simba given how much money it is still making. Despite its current home video availability, people still want to experience the beloved film on the big screen and many are introducing it to a new generation of children or just reliving their younger days. An extended theatrical run could deposit another $40M+ into Disney's vault and allow the re-release to surpass the $100M barrier.

Actor/producer Brad Pitt clinched second place but still scored a major victory with crtics and movie fans alike with his baseball drama Moneyball which opened to $19.5M. The Sony release averaged a solid $6,516 per site from 2,993 locations and played to a much older adult crowd although the gender split was about even. Studio research showed that 64% of the audience was over 35 while males made up 51%. Based on the true story of how the 2002 Oakland A's rebuilt their team after losing their best players, Moneyball earned high praise across the board from film critics. Moviegoers were equally pleased with the PG-13 pic earning a promising A CinemaScore.

With strong reviews, stellar word-of-mouth, and an older audience not likely to rush out on opening weekend, Moneyball is well-positioned to enjoy solid legs in the weeks ahead. Baseball is about to start its post-season so the film will remain topical for weeks to come. Plus Pitt is earning plenty of Oscar buzz for his acting performance which will keep the film hot too. Overseas prospects are promising too despite the baseball theme because of Pitt's incredible box office pull around the world. With a reported $50M production cost, Moneyball may be able to find its way to $250M or more worldwide.

Another uplifting film based on a true story opened close behind in third. The Warner Bros. release Dolphin Tale scored big points with audiences collecting $19.2M this weekend averaging a good $5,461 from 3,507 locations. Playing in 2D and 3D, the PG-rated tale about an injured dolphin and the people who help her saw 50% of its gross come from the extra-dimensional screens. Reviews were very good and audiences loved what they saw giving Tale an amazing A+ CinemaScore grade. Saturday saw a tremendous 70% leap in ticket sales over opening day giving it the best jump in the top ten. Strong legs will keep this feel-good film going in the weeks ahead. Starring Morgan Freeman, Harry Connick Jr., and Ashley Judd, Dolphin Tale's performance was especially impressive given how much of the family audience is already distracted by The Lion King right now.

If none of next weekend's four new releases truly pop then Moneyball and Dolphin Tale could find themselves in another fierce battle - this time for the number one spot. Breaking the $100M mark this fall is certainly a possibility for each film.

Teen girls came out in lukewarm numbers for their favorite shirtless wolf Taylor Lautner who saw a $10.9M opening for his first starring vehicle Abduction. Lionsgate went very wide with the PG-13 thriller going out in 3,118 theaters which resulted in a mild $3,504 average. The distributor rarely releases a film in 3,000+ playdates. Studio research showed that the audience was 68% female and 56% under 25 indicating that the critically-panned film struggled to find appeal outside of its primary young-female quadrant. But at least Lautner found more success than his Twilight co-stars and broke double digit millions. Kristen Stewart's Adventureland bowed to just $5.7M while Robert Pattinson's Remember Me debuted to $8.1M. The vampire heartthrob did score a nice hit earlier this year with the romance Water for Elephants which opened to $16.8M, however that film was led by bankable Oscar winner Reese Witherspoon.

Rookie distributor Open Road saw a slow start with its first release Killer Elite which posted the worst opening among the four new films this weekend with $9.4M. The R-rated actioner starring Jason Statham, Clive Owen, and Robert De Niro averaged a weak $3,131 from 2,986 theaters. Its 9% Friday-to-Saturday bump was also the lowest for any freshman flick. Reviews from critics were mostly negative but audiences were somewhat kinder to film which earned a mediocre B grade from CinemaScore.

Holdovers rounded out the top ten with mixed results. The virus thriller Contagion held up well with $8.5M, off 42%, for a $57M cume for Warner Bros. All the love showered by critics on the crime drama Drive failed to do much as the FilmDistrict release fell 49% to $5.8M giving the Ryan Gosling starrer $21.4M in ten days. That may seem like a lot for an art film, but its 2,900-theater release does not come with low P&A expenses. Drive averaged a slow $1,985 per location this weekend from 2,904 sites.

The Help followed with $4.4M, down just 33%, giving Disney $154.4M to date. Sony's remake Straw Dogs collapsed in its second outing tumbling 60% to $2.1M and a measly $8.8M in ten days. Also rejected by moviegoers, Sarah Jessica Parker's comedy I Don't Know How She Does It dropped 55% to $2M. The Weinstein Company's latest flop has taken in a paltry $8M.

Gerard Butler's Africa-set drama Machine Gun Preacher got off to a good start in platform release with $45,130 from two theaters each in New York and Los Angeles for a $11,283 average. Drawing mixed reviews, the R-rated film expands to 15 major markets on Friday through Relativity Media.

The top ten films grossed a September record $103.5M which was up 16% from last year when Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps opened in the top spot with $19M; and up 30% from 2009 when Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs remained at number one with $25M in its second weekend.

Compared to projections, Moneyball and Dolphin Tale both opened above my respective forecasts of $16M and $12M while Abduction and Killer Elite debuted below my projections of $15M and $11M.

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Watch the NEW trailer for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. For a NEW DVD review of Scream 4 visit The Chief Report.

Be sure to check back on Thursday for a complete summary, including projections, for next weekend when Dream House, What's Your Number?, 50/50, and Courageous all open.

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

# Title Sep 23 - 25 Sep 16 - 18 % Chg. Theaters Weeks AVG Cumulative Distributor
1 The Lion King 3D $ 21,929,332 $ 30,151,614 -27.3 2,330 2 $ 9,412 $ 61,475,402 Disney
2 Moneyball 19,501,302 2,993 1 6,516 19,501,302 Sony
3 Dolphin Tale 19,152,401 3,507 1 5,461 19,152,401 Warner Bros.
4 Abduction 10,925,253 3,118 1 3,504 10,925,253 Lionsgate
5 Killer Elite 9,352,008 2,986 1 3,132 9,352,008 Open Road
6 Contagion 8,451,226 14,548,433 -41.9 3,136 3 2,695 57,007,898 Warner Bros.
7 Drive 5,763,998 11,340,461 -49.2 2,904 2 1,985 21,417,373 FilmDistrict
8 The Help 4,370,051 6,513,039 -32.9 2,695 7 1,622 154,414,153 Disney
9 Straw Dogs 2,051,333 5,123,760 -60.0 2,408 2 852 8,835,187 Sony
10 I Don't Know How She Does It 2,002,040 4,402,201 -54.5 2,490 2 804 7,968,465 Weinstein Co.
11 The Debt 1,260,611 2,942,631 -57.2 1,067 4 1,181 28,967,074 Focus
12 Rise of the Planet of the Apes 1,162,288 2,658,131 -56.3 1,178 8 987 173,600,811 Fox
13 Kevin Hart: Laugh At My Pain 1,135,157 1,190,756 -4.7 287 3 3,955 5,165,640 Code Black
14 Warrior 1,119,835 2,860,325 -60.8 1,411 3 794 12,210,126 Lionsgate
15 Colombiana 934,728 2,330,291 -59.9 847 5 1,104 35,120,171 Sony
16 Crazy, Stupid, Love 783,376 1,566,182 -50.0 675 8 1,161 82,068,926 Warner Bros.
17 Spy Kids: All the Time in the World 718,442 1,590,367 -54.8 1,207 6 595 37,026,880 Weinstein Co.
18 The Smurfs 541,836 1,243,268 -56.4 669 9 810 138,353,892 Sony
19 Shark Night 3D 466,801 1,801,701 -74.1 637 4 733 18,223,238 Relativity
20 Mausam 459,024 96 1 4,782 459,024 Eros
Top 5 $ 80,860,296 $ 67,677,307 19.5
Top 10 103,498,944 82,870,886 24.9
Top 20 112,081,042 95,044,419 17.9
Top 20 vs. 2010 112,081,042 94,793,909 18.2

Last Updated: September 26, 2011 at 6:15PM ET

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