"Hotel Transylvania" sank its teeth into the competition this weekend, as the animated film easily ruled the box office.
The 3-D monster flick, which features classic characters such as Dracula and the Mummy, had the biggest September opening ever with its robust debut of $43 million, according to an estimate from distributor Sony Pictures. It was a strong weekend at the multiplex for Sony, as the sci-fi thriller "Looper"from the studio's TriStar label claimed the runner-up position with a solid $21.2 million in ticket sales.
The only new wide release to be greeted with poor response this weekend was "Won't Back Down," the education drama starring Viola Davis and Maggie Gyllenhaal that tanked with $2.7 million.
"Hotel Transylvania" far exceeded Sony's modest opening weekend expectations, but even beat industry projections, which had the film debuting with around $35 million. Previously, the highest-grossing film in the month of September was "Sweet Home Alabama," which launched with $35.6 million in 2002 but did not have the advantage of 3-D ticket sale premiums.
The film, which features celebrity voices such as Adam Sandler and Selena Gomez, was not greeted with especially warm reviews but was beloved by audiences this weekend. Those who saw the film -- a 76% family audience -- assigned it an average grade of A-, said market research firm CinemaScore.
The opening for "Transylvania" marks the biggest debut ever for Sony Pictures Animation, which spent about $100 million to produce the film, according to one individual close to the production. (Sony insisted the budget was actually $85 million.) The animation studio's largest hit to date is "The Smurfs," which opened with $35.6 million last year and ultimately raked in $142.6 million domestically and $421.1 million more abroad. More recent releases such as"The Pirates! Band of Misfits" and "Arthur Christmas" have failed to meet equal success, so "Transylvania" is a welcome winner.
Meanwhile, the critical darling "Looper" appealed strongly to older males this weekend, as 49% of the audience were men and 70% were over the age of 25. That crowd gave the movie an average grade of B.
The time-travel film, written and directed by Rian Johnson, stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a younger version of an assassin played by Bruce Willis. The movie reunites Johnson and Gordon-Levitt, who first teamed up on 2005's indie "Brick." "Looper" will be the biggest commercial success for the filmmaker, whose highest-grossing film to date was 2009's crime comedy "The Brothers Bloom," which made only $3.5 million in limited release. "Looper" is also a needed hit for Gordon-Levitt, as the 31-year-old's upward trajectory in Hollywood hit a stumbling block this summer when his bicycle messenger film "Premium Rush" flopped at the box office.
"Looper" was financed for around $30 million by Endgame Entertainment, and FilmDistrict and Sony acquired North American distribution rights at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival based on a trailer-length promo. While the movie is performing well in the U.S. and Canada, it also had an excellent launch internationally this weekend, particularly in China. Early estimates have the film -- a co-production with China's film producer and distributor DMG -- opening with around $24 million in the foreign country.
Though it sparked debate among the education community, "Won't Back Down" failed to lure moviegoers to the box office this weekend. The movie, about two parents trying to change a school for the better, was financed by Walden Media for $19 million but is being distributed by 20th Century Fox.
Though the movie was not liked by critics, the few who saw it this weekend enjoyed it, giving the adult drama an average grade of A-. Stlll, word-of-mouth would have to be exceptionally strong for the film to become as big of a hit as an issue film like "Erin Brockovich."
[Updated 12:07 p.m. Sept. 30: Overseas, "Transylvania" premiered in 13 foreign markets including Australia and the Philippines and collected $8.1 million. The film performed best in Mexico, where it sold $3.6 million worth of tickets -- more than double the opening of the studio's "Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs" in the same country.
Here are the top 10 movies at the domestic box office, according to studio estimates and Hollywood.com:
1. "Hotel Transylvania" (Sony): Opened with $43 million. $8.1 million overseas in 13 foreign markets.
2. "Looper" (Sony/Endgame/FilmDistrict): Opened with $21.2 million.
3. "End of Watch" (Open Road/Emmett/Furla/Exclusive): $8 million on its second weekend, down 39%. Domestic total: $26.2 million.
4. "Trouble With the Curve" (Warner Bros.): $7.5 million on its second weekend, down 38%. Domestic total: $23.7 million.
5. "House at the End of the Street" (Relativity/FilmNation/A Bigger Boat): $7.2 million on its second weekend, down 42%. Domestic total: $22.2 million.
6. "Pitch Perfect" (Universal/Gold Circle): Opened with $5.2 million in limited release.
7. "Finding Nemo 3-D" (Disney): $4.1 million on its third weekend, down 58%. Domestic total: $36.5 million. $1.1 million overseas in 17 foreign countries. International total: $10.2 million.
9. "The Master" (Weinstein Co.): $2.7 million on its third weekend, down 37%. Domestic total: $9.6 million.
10. "Won't Back Down" (Fox/Walden): Opened with $2.7 million.]