"Paranormal Activity 4" may have claimed No. 1 at the box office this weekend, but its opening may be frightening Paramount Pictures about the future of its horror franchise.
The fourth entry in the low-budget series -- which began playing at 9 p.m. Thursday in theaters nationwide -- debuted with $30.2 million, according to an estimate from the studio. While that's certainly a good start for a movie that cost only about $6 million to produce, the film came in well below industry projections, which had the movie starting off with roughly $50 million. The picture's opening was also far lower than the $52.6 million the third "Paranormal" film took in during its first weekend last year, and even behind the second film's $40.7 million debut in 2010.
The only other film to hit theaters nationwide this weekend was "Alex Cross," which launched with a so-so $11.8 million. The movie, based on novelist James Patterson's popular book series about a psychologist who doubles as a detective, was expected to debut with at least $15 million.
In more positive news, Ben Affleck's political thriller "Argo" maintained an excellent hold at the box office during its second weekend in theaters. The film saw its ticket sales drop only 15% to $16.6 million, raising its overall total to $43.2 million. Those who saw the well-reviewed movie last weekend assigned it a perfect average grade of A+, according to market research firm CinemaScore, and clearly that word of mouth is paying off for the Warner Bros. flick.
Those who saw "Paranormal Activity 4" this weekend weren't as enthusiastic, giving it a dismal grade of C. The movie, which has received the poorest reviews of any of the "Paranormal" films, attracted a young audience this weekend, 60% of whom were under the age of 25.
The lower-than-anticipated opening for the fourth film calls into question the longevity of the "Paranormal" franchise for Paramount, which is already planning to release a fifth entry next fall and is working on a spin-off franchise. Since the original -- made for only $15,000 -- became a surprise phenomenon back in 2009, the "Paranormal" series has appeared to have the potential of a long-running horror franchise like "Saw." That Lionsgate series produced seven films -- most of which did respectable business -- before winding down in 2010.
Megan Colligan, Paramount's president of domestic distribution, insisted that the studio "continues to be extremely excited by the franchise," noting that it is exceptionally profitable. Asked why the fourth film opened significantly behind the third, Colligan said the marketplace was more crowded this year and the studio was positioning "Paranormal" as a global franchise.
"There can be softness that happens in the domestic marketplace with sequels, but a little bit of softening here is mitigated by a growing marketplace internationally," she said.
Indeed, the film outperformed its prior two installments overseas this weekend. Internationally, the movie collected $26.5 million from 33 foreign countries including Russia, Australia and Mexico. The film performed best abroad in the United Kingdom, where it grossed $4.1 million over five days. The third "Paranormal" flick made about $100 million overseas.
Meanwhile, Tyler Perry's first foray as a leading man in a film he did not write or direct wasn't a rousing success. The 43-year-old has become known in Hollywood for his popularity with African American audiences, who love to see him cross-dressing as the brassy grandmother character Madea.
However, those who saw "Alex Cross" this weekend did like it a lot, assigning the film an average grade of A -- meaning the movie has a shot at benefitting from positive buzz in the coming weeks. The majority of the opening weekend crowd for the movie was black -- roughly 74% -- while about 68% of the audience was over the age of 35.
Still, it seems unlikely that the film will perform as well in the U.S. as "Kiss the Girls" or "Along Came a Spider," two films in which Patterson's Cross character was played by Morgan Freeman over a decade ago. Fortunately, U.S. distributor Summit Entertainment doesn't have much on the line financially with "Alex Cross": The studio co-financed the movie with Bill Block's QED International and Patterson for $23 million.