It was a weekend of firsts at the box office.
The No. 1 spot went to the first cave-man family in "The Croods," and "Olympus Has Fallen" star Gerard Butler had his first strong showing at the multiplex in years.
The 3-D animated family film beat out the competition, grossing a solid $44.7 million, according to an estimate from distributor 20th Century Fox. "Olympus Has Fallen," a White House-set action thriller, exceeded industry expectations by about $10 million, debuting with a healthy $30.5 million.
Meanwhile, the Tina Fey-Paul Rudd comedy "Admission" started off with an underwhelming $6.4 million. And "Spring Breakers," the raunchy art-house party film that expanded to 1,100 theaters this weekend, collected $5.4 million.
But even the release of four new movies couldn't help lift box office ticket sales. The 2013 slump continued, as receipts are down 13% compared with last year, and attendance is off 14%, according to Hollywood.com. The combined gross of all of this weekend's releases — $139.5 million — doesn't even add up to the $152.5-million opening gross of "The Hunger Games," which launched during the same three-day period a year ago.
Those who saw "The Croods" this weekend liked it a lot, assigning the film an average grade of A, according to market research firm CinemaScore. That's good news for the $135-million DreamWorks Animation film, as the movie will need strong word-of-mouth if it is to become a bona-fide hit.
Jeffrey Katzenberg's company is in need of a success story after taking a $87-million write-down on its last release, November's "Rise of the Guardians." "The Croods," which features the voices of Nicolas Cage and Emma Stone in a prehistoric story about a family of cave dwellers, will have to perform well overseas to avoid a similar fate. It has collected $63.3 million in 25 foreign markets.
Despite its mediocre reviews "Olympus Has Fallen" resonated with moviegoers, as the opening-weekend crowd gave the film an A- grade. The R-rated movie over-performed at the box office largely because older males turned out in force — roughly 73% of the audience was over the age of 25.
The film's opening is the highest ever for Graham King's FilmDistrict, whose biggest success since launching three years ago has been "Looper." That sci-fi action film debuted with $20.8 million last September and ultimately grossed $66.4 million domestically.
But "Olympus Has Fallen," which stars Butler as a disgraced Secret Service agent trying to save the White House from a terrorist takeover, is also one of the costliest movies FilmDistrict has ever released. Avi Lerner's Millennium Films spent about $70 million to make the film, which was acquired by the independent distributor at no cost. (FilmDistrict is helping to pay the marketing of the movie, however.)
Butler, 43, was badly in need of a good opening. The actor — who also produced "Olympus" — has recently appeared in a string of box-office bombs, including last year's sports-themed "Playing for Keeps" and "Chasing Mavericks" — neither of which ended up with even $15 million in ticket sales. The actor, who rose to fame in the sword-and-sandals epic "300," tends to do well with commercial action films — in 2009, his "Law Abiding Citizen" made $126.7 million worldwide.
"I think this confirms his status as an action star," said Jim Orr, FilmDistrict's president of distribution. "Often women were grading the film as high as men — and that no doubt has something to do with Mr. Butler."
Both critics and audiences disliked "Admission," which stars Fey as a college admissions counselor on a mission to help a high-schooler get accepted to university. The movie was the worst reviewed of any of the weekend's new releases and also notched the lowest CinemaScore — a B-.
The film is the first major disappointment for the former "Saturday Night Live" star, who helped to lead both 2008's "Baby Mama" and 2010's "Date Night" to box-office success. "Admission," a $13-million Focus Features release, is less broad of a comedy than Fey's previous efforts.
"I really don't think it's her. She's really a very popular woman," said Focus' domestic distribution president Jack Foley. "There were some really negative reviews out there, and I think that was a challenge for us. It's clearly a disappointing opening and discouraging all the way around."
As for "Spring Breakers," the Harmony Korine film did decently after getting off to a fantastic start in limited release last weekend. The movie, featuring formerly squeaky-clean Disney stars Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hudgens in more provocative roles, was produced for under $5 million. Though the picture is certainly a success for a low-budget film initially conceived for the art house, this weekend's results indicate that it's unlikely the movie will become a nationwide hit.