Paramount Pictures' strategy to shun big coastal cities and the critics paid off on opening weekend, but there's reason to wonder whether the momentum will last.
"G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra" earned a solid $56.2 million domestically and $44.1 million overseas, according to studio estimates. Spyglass Entertainment covered 25% of the picture's $175-million production budget, while Paramount paid for the rest and spent about $150 million to market and distribute it worldwide.
The opening weekend total of $100.3 million is about $10 million behind that of "Star Trek," Paramount's similar and successful attempt to revive a brand on the big screen in May. The "G.I. Joe" launch was good enough, however, to potentially start a third summer franchise for the studio, along with "Star Trek" and "Transformers." Paramount Vice Chairman Rob Moore said development on a "G.I. Joe" sequel would begin soon.
Most of the film's principal cast is contractually obligated to return, though director Stephen Sommers is not.
Paramount focused more advertising money than usual on smaller cities in the Midwest and South for the picture, a strategy that was reflected in ticket sales. Whereas movies typically earn about 50% of their box-office revenue in the Northeast and on the West Coast, Moore said, "G.I. Joe" did 40% of its business in those regions.
There was one statistic, however, that could prove worrisome for the studio: Although opening-day audiences gave the movie an average grade of B-plus, according to market research firm CinemaScore, ticket sales declined 18% on Saturday from Friday. That's often an indicator of bad buzz among moviegoers.
Universal and Sony Pictures' "Funny People" experienced a slightly smaller Friday to Saturday drop of 15% on its opening weekend. This weekend, the film's second, its ticket sales plunged 65%.
"Star Trek," by contrast, saw its ticket sales increase Saturday from its Friday start and went on to more than triple its opening-weekend gross in the U.S. and Canada.
Such a fate seems unlikely for "G.I. Joe," particularly since Sony's "District 9" opens Friday and is expected to perform well with males, who made up more than 60% of the audience for this weekend's No. 1 film.
Moore said Paramount would attempt to counter that threat by focusing advertising more on families, which made up only one-third of the opening weekend audience for the PG-13-rated "G.I. Joe."
"We really have the month of August to go after families with a boy who's not too young and tell them this is a movie they'll be interested in," said Moore, who noted that upcoming male-targeted pictures such as "District 9" and "Inglorious Basterds" are rated R.
If "G.I. Joe" does fade quickly at the domestic box office, it could make up some of the difference on the international front. The film did better than "Star Trek" in nearly every foreign country, particularly East Asia, where South Korean co-star Byung-hun Lee was featured in the advertising. It has yet to open in several major markets, including Germany and Italy.
Sony's attempt to counter-program with a film aimed at adult women proved successful, as "Julie & Julia" opened to $20.1 million, a healthy start given the Nora Ephron-directed drama's production budget of about $40 million. Moviegoers were 67% female and 64% over age 35.
"It's an audience that doesn't run out to movies necessarily," said Rory Bruer, distribution president for Sony Pictures. "That bodes well for our future because they have a tendency to keep going for weeks and weeks."
Sony should be helped by positive buzz, as moviegoers gave "Julie and Julia" an average grade of A and ticket sales Saturday increased 16% from Friday. It will face stiff competition next weekend, however, from Warner Bros' "The Time Traveler's Wife," which is tracking well with women, according to pre-release polling.
"Julie & Julia" undoubtedly got a boost from largely positive reviews. "G.I. Joe" was generally savaged by critics, but most reviews didn't appear until late Friday or Saturday morning. That's because Paramount didn't screen the film ahead of time for print and broadcast media, a first this year for a big-budget event film.
Moore said he was confident it was the right strategy, pointing to a brutally negative review in the New York Times that called the film a "gaseous emission" and "junk."
"Why do I want that review to run on Friday?" he asked with a laugh.
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WEEKEND BOX OFFICE
Estimated sales in the U.S. and Canada:
*--* -- Movie 3-day gross Percentag Total Days in e change -- (studio) (millions) from last (millions) release weekend 1 G.I. Joe: The Rise $56.2 NA $56.2 3 of Cobra -- (Paramount/Spyglass) 2 Julie & Julia $20.1 NA $20.1 3 -- (Sony) 3 G-Force $9.8 -44% $86.1 17 -- (Disney) 4 Harry Potter and the $8.9 -50% $273.8 26 -- Half-Blood Prince -- (Warner Bros.) 5 Funny People $7.9 -65% $40.4 10 -- (Universal/Sony/Rel ativity) 6 The Ugly Truth $7 -47% $69.1 17 -- (Sony) 7 A Perfect Getaway $5.8 NA $5.8 3 -- (Universal/Rogue) 8 Aliens in the Attic $4 -50% $16.3 10 -- (Fox/New Regency) 9 Orphan $3.7 -50% $34.8 17 -- (Warner Bros./Dark Castle) 10 (500) Days of Summer $3.7 +34% $12.3 24 -- (Fox Searchlight) *--*
*--* 3-day gross Change Year-to-date gross Change (in millions) from 2008 (in billions) from 2008 $147.0 +22.3% $6.6 +6.6% *--*
Sources: Times research and Hollywood.com Box Office