LOS ANGELES -- "Contagion" proved infectious with audiences at the box office this weekend, while the studios behind three other new films were left disappointed by sickly ticket sales.
The Steven Soderbergh-directed thriller about the global spread of a deadly pandemic opened to a solid $23.1 million, according to an estimate from distributor Warner Bros. That sum was enough to knock out "Warrior," a mixed-martial-arts drama from the director of "Miracle" that has received excellent reviews but was sent to the mat with just $5.6 million.
"Bucky Larson: Born to Be a Star," an R-rated comedy from Adam Sandler's Happy Madison Productions, took in a laughably bad $1.5 million, and "Creature," a low-budget, independently released horror film, fared far worse with an embarrassing $331,000.
For the first time in three weekends, "The Help" did not take the No. 1 spot at the box office. Rather, the adaptation of Kathryn Stockett's novel made $8.7 million and had to settle for second place -- the same spot where it had landed when it debuted four weeks ago behind "Rise of the Planet of the Apes." After 33 days in release, the buzz-worthy film about race relations in the South has collected $137.1 million.
Overall, it was a weak weekend for moviegoing -- the slowest of the year so far, with only $82 million in ticket sales. Previously, the worst weekend for the movie business in 2011 coincided with the Super Bowl in February, when ticket sales amounted to $87.1 million.
"Contagion" played in 3,222 theaters this weekend -- more than 1,000 more than each of the other three films in wide release. The pandemic flick appealed to females and males in equal measure, although an overwhelming 81 percent of the crowd was over age 25. The film, which stars A-list actors including Matt Damon and Kate Winslet, has gone over well with critics since premiering at the Venice Film Festival this month. But moviegoers who saw the film this weekend gave it a so-so average grade of "B-minus," according to market research firm CinemaScore.
"Adult movies are really strong in the fall, and the only other adult movie out there this weekend was 'The Help,' " said Jeff Goldstein, executive vice president of domestic distribution for Warner Bros., the studio that released the film. "This movie also has a lot of star power, but it's subject matter that makes everybody a little uneasy. The marketing brought that out and tapped into our own insecurities -- we sit there and say, 'That's awful,' but we're interested in it."
The picture was produced by Warner Bros. and Participant Media for about $60 million, meaning the movie is off to a decent start domestically. "Contagion" also opened in six small foreign markets this weekend and collected $2.1 million there. The movie is ultimately poised to do respectable business overseas, where some of its stars -- such as French actress Marion Cotillard and Brit actor Jude Law -- hail from.
It was a disappointing weekend for "Warrior," which Lionsgate had hoped could ultimately reach the level of success attained by "The Fighter." The latter film, which is set in the world of boxing, also has strong themes about family and debuted with a $12.1 million gross late last year. It ended up with a total of $129.2 million worldwide.
But "Warrior," directed by Gavin O'Connor, does not feature well-known stars in its lead roles, as "The Fighter" did with Mark Wahlberg and Christian Bale. Instead, the new release centers on the relationship between two brothers from a broken home played by relative newcomers Tom Hardy and Joel Edgerton. As expected, the movie appealed this weekend mostly to male moviegoers, who made up 66 percent of the audience.
Last weekend, Lionsgate held advance screenings of "Warrior" in 550 theaters nationwide in an effort to build positive buzz. Still, moviegoers didn't turn up in the numbers the studio was hoping for this weekend -- although those who saw the film really loved it, giving it a grade of "A'' on average.
Lionsgate, which primarily financed "Warrior" for about $25 million, can now only hope that the good word-of-mouth will travel fast in the coming weeks.
"Everybody who sees this film goes nuts for it -- but it's truly a slow burn," said David Spitz, Lionsgate's executive vice president of distribution. "Like the movie, we're going to continue to fight to get audiences in."
Meanwhile, critics loathed "Bucky Larson" so much that as of Sunday morning, the film had earned a rare 0 percent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes. And yet audiences still gave the movie about a Midwesterner who travels to Hollywood to become a porn star a "B'' -- a higher grade than "Contagion" received.
The movie, distributed by Sony Pictures, stars stand-up comedian Nick Swardson, who was also featured in "30 Minutes or Less" -- another disappointment released by the studio over the summer. Sony spent less than $10 million to make the film, on which Sandler also was a writer and producer.
"Creature," about friends battling a swamp monster, posted the weakest debut of the year for any film that opened in wide release (meaning it opened in more than 1,000 theaters). The flop, which boasted no recognizable actors or filmmakers, was made for less than $5 million by the Bubble Factory, the independent production company headed by former MCA Inc. President Sid Sheinberg and his brother, Jon.
Despite the film's horrid performance, Jon Sheinberg somehow remained upbeat about its prospects, calling the release campaign a "great experiment."
"While the box office numbers didn't move the needle as much as we hoped, we still feel this is a model that will work," he said in a statement released to the media, which went on to quote a Los Angeles Times review describing the movie as a "down-and-dirty, breasts-and-blood, creature-horror exploitation picture."