Interpreting the Box Office After 'Eat Pray Love' Opening Weekend

40% of 'Expendables' Audience Was Women

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CHICAGO ( -- As we approach the last few weekends of the summer movie season, the Monday-morning quarterbacking -- or more often the gnashing of teeth -- is getting increasingly loud. Much of that has to do with the (not very surprising) fallout of this weekend's box office, as "The Expendables" blasted its way to the top but "Scott Pilgrim vs. the World" found an uphill climb ahead to avoid being a bomb.

'The Expendables' grossed $35 million this weekend.
'The Expendables' grossed $35 million this weekend.
In case you missed the numbers: "The Expendables" grossed a strong $35 million this weekend to Julia Roberts' "Eat Pray Love," which took in a satisfactory $24 million. "Scott Pilgrim," which to me was strongly and smartly marketed by Universal, took in a disappointing $10.5 million.

This was supposed to be the weekend that every audience niche was covered and every movie got paid. But it didn't entirely work out that way. Already -- and it's only Monday, mind you -- overanalysis is in play and every trope is going under a microscope as studio execs try to pick out the important bits for the reasons behind box-office victory or failure for the latest Hollywood trends.

Here are some talking points to bear in mind for later discussion:

Nostalgia rules. Witness the '80s-themed success, starting in late spring, of "Hot Tub Time Machine," "Grown-ups," the remake of "Karate Kid" and "The Expendables," an uber-'80s action film if there ever was one.

Then again, "The A-Team" lost in a direct shootout with "Karate Kid" and will likely wind up a disappointment for its studio. That's another thing about nostalgia: It can cut both ways. "Karate Kid" has aged nicely, thanks to steady cable showings over the years, while I think many Gen Xers mostly remembered that "The A-Team" just wasn't a particularly good show. Maybe the lesson here is that Gen X doesn't want remakes of old TV shows. (Didn't we already learn this lesson when boomers seemingly recycled every corny TV show for the big screen in the early '90s? Or when many viewers stayed away from NBC's similar attempts at nostalgia?) But many people do enjoy poking fun at themselves and their old favorites. This is why "The Wedding Singer" remains a popular film and why "The Expendables" worked so well. Also, there was a certain amount of originality to these hits, which brings us to:

Originality, of a sort, works. One rule of thumb for summer is that franchises and sequels work best, leaving more original fare for spring and fall. But there's real originality and there's something new within a familiar treatment. "Inception" is being held as the standard of this summer's originality here -- a runaway success that is not based on any pre-existing property. But "Inception" is still a big-budget genre picture with eye-popping special effects, hallmarks of summer tent-poles. Other films that fall into the so-called originality category, such as "Salt," "Despicable Me" and "The Other Guys," still play with certain audience comfort zones. "The Kids Are All Right," the breakout independent hit of the summer, was the requisite bit of counter-programming, the one movie that's meant to draw in "adults" in a sea of explosions and 3-D CG. Yes, the story was original -- but the strategy, which was well-executed by Focus Features, was not.

But sequels (and franchises) still rule. For your consideration: "Iron Man 2," "Sex and the City 2," "Toy Story 3" and "Shrek 4." Other contenders in this category include "Predators" (which may have also gone into the nostalgia trope), "The Last Airbender" (based on a popular cartoon show), "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" (which wanted to be but most likely won't become the next "Pirates of the Caribbean") and "Prince of Persia" (based on a video game). It was another full slate of blockbuster sequels and potential franchises. But while the numericals have done well, few -- with the exception of "Toy Story 3" -- have lived up to expectations set by their predecessors. Case in point: "Twilight: Eclipse," like "Iron Man 2," is not being compared favorably to "New Moon," even though it has gone on to gross an estimated $653 million worldwide to date. During its 19-week theatrical run, the second iteration of the series, "Twilight: New Moon" grossed $710 million worldwide. One of the reasons for the disappointment is that the opening weekend for "Eclipse" ($65 million) paled in comparison to the $143 million "New Moon" took in over an extended weekend. This will lead to the inevitable talk of ...

Audience fatigue. Yes, there will be talk of audience fatigue. Even with massive box office, disappointment in some of the very expensive sequels' performances suggests, perhaps, that moviegoers could get bored of familiar faces, monsters and superheroes.

Just don't expect studios to react much to such talk. They'll keep releasing sequels and other franchise-ready properties during the summer. See earlier point, "Sequels (and franchises) still rule." The more interesting and important question begging to be asked this summer is, who is the audience?

Girls and boys. No one can deny that teen girls are now a sizable audience that can make a movie a hit -- even without vampires. "Letters to Juliet" has been a surprise at the box office. In 14 weeks, the movie has taken in almost $53 million. Not bad for a movie that cost an estimated $30 million to produce. Girls are the new women -- silly as that sounds -- and this is the demo that the data junkies and numbers crunchers at the studios are going to spend a lot of time parsing.

There has been talk for the past two years that actual women are underserved at the movies and that's still true, especially compared to teen girls. But where were the women this weekend? Is Julia Roberts not the next Meryl Streep? Is Stallone the new Clooney? What does it mean that 40% of the audience for "The Expendables" were women? (My guess: "Eat Pray Love" is going to have longer legs than the action flick they went to with their husbands and boyfriends this weekend, aka payback's a bitch.)

'Scott Pilgrim'
'Scott Pilgrim'
And then what about "Scott Pilgrim"? Where are the boys who make up the summer audience? You know, those comic-book-reading, video-game-playing, action-sports-loving, music-downloading, sex-crazed geeks/nerds/jocks/loners/potheads? Can they all be "boys"? Which often also means "college kids." Or "Gen Y." Or "Michael Cera." Maybe this summer's box-office roller coaster took so many dips because of an overbroad definition of "boy." Can the same boy see "Iron Man 2," "Prince of Persia," "A-Team," "Sorcerer's Apprentice" and "Scott Pilgrim"?

"Scott Pilgrim" is a "hipster action flick," as my colleague Andrew Hampp called it. Who exactly goes to see those? The fans of the comic book the movie is based on? Music lovers? Do hipsters, with their artistic and intellectual airs, like action films or do they like romantic comedies? And do they like movies that are a little of both? (Cinema Blend this morning does an admirable job sorting through the wreckage.)

I'm not sure we're going to see any radical shifts based on the latest box-office surprises. Change in Hollywood is glacial, and rarely does it set the agenda these days. Only when they finally figure out the audience is on to the next big thing do studios react. But by the time they do, most moviegoers are over it.

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