The weekend before Christmas is not the time when box-office hits are made, but it is when the early holiday flops are established.
Among the trio of new movies that opened just ahead of the two most important moviegoing weeks of the year outside of summer, the big-budget sequel "Tron: Legacy" appears to have a solid chance at turning into a hit, while the kids' cartoon adaptation "Yogi Bear" is a long shot, and the pricey adult dramedy "How Do You Know" is dead on arrival. They debuted to estimated ticket sales of $43.6 million, $16.7 million and $7.6 million, respectively.
In addition, two low-budget films moved from limited to nationwide release with strong performances. The Mark Wahlberg boxing story "The Fighter" raked in $12.2 million, while the psychological drama "Black Swan," playing in fewer than half as many theaters as each of the other four movies, grossed $8.3 million.
"You come out now to be ready for that week between Christmas and New Year when every day is like a holiday," explained Walt Disney Studios distribution president Chuck Viane.
Disney's "Tron: Legacy" is the biggest bet of the holiday season. With a production budget estimated at around $170 million and millions more riding on current and future theme-park attraction, video game and television spinoffs, Disney is aiming to revive the 1982 cult favorite "Tron" as a multimedia franchise.
The solid but far from spectacular opening-weekend results were driven mainly by adult males, many of whom are likely fans of the original. In good news for Disney, most moviegoers liked the film, giving it an average grade of B+, and they were willing to pay extra to see it in the best quality: 82% of ticket sales revenue came from theaters playing "Tron: Legacy" in 3-D and 24% was for digital or large-format Imax.
Overseas revenue was more muted, as "Tron: Legacy" took in a so-so $23 million from the 26 foreign markets where it debuted, including Britain, Spain, Australia and Japan. European ticket sales overall were soft, however, because of snowstorms on the continent.
The big question for Disney now is whether the PG-rated film can move from a fanboy-driven debut to an all-ages hit that families see together. If it does, "Tron: Legacy" could gross $200 million or more domestically and the same overseas. If it doesn't, it could fizzle and end up a financial disappointment due to narrow appeal.
Warner Bros. is hoping that for families with young children, "Yogi Bear" will be the movie of choice as schools close for the holidays. A soft opening leaves it with a significant ground to make up given the animation/live-action hybrid movie's $80-million cost.
One thing already clear is that "Yogi" won't turn into a surprise smash like another classic cartoon adaptation that opened in mid-December: "Alvin and the Chipmunks." That movie debuted to $44.3 million on the same weekend in 2007.
While "Yogi's" overall CinemaScore was a B, those under 25 gave it "Yogi" an A-, indicating that children are more likely than their parents to tell their friends to see it.
There's no hope of box-office recovery for "How Do You Know," directed by James L. Brooks and starring Reese Witherspoon, Owen Wilson, Paul Rudd and Jack Nicholson. After middling reviews and a marketing campaign that failed to catch on, its weak opening was matched by a poor CinemaScore of C-.
Sony Pictures spent more than $100 million to produce "How Do You Know," making the movie a painful money-loser for the studio.
Brooks' movies rarely have large openings, but "How Do You Know" came in weaker than the 2004 disappointment "Spanglish" and the 1997 hit "As Good As It Gets." Its failure provides more evidence that star-driven adult dramas with big budgets are no longer working for Hollywood.
"The Fighter" and "Black Swan" are both well positioned not only for the holidays but for awards season in January and February, when both movies are expected to follow their Golden Globes and Screen Actors Guild nominations with Oscar attention.
The performance of "The Fighter," which got an A- CinemaScore from an adult audience evenly divided between men and women, is similar to that of last year's "Up in the Air," which took in $11.3 million on its first weekend playing nationwide and ultimately grossed $83.8 million domestically. Relativity Media financed "The Fighter," based on a true story, for $25 million, and the film is being distributed by Paramount Pictures.
The box-office performance of "Black Swan," meanwhile, looks similar to that of the 2007 Coen brothers movie "No Country for Old Men," which collected $7.8 million on its first nationwide weekend. That Oscar-winning film went on to rake in $74.3 million; a similar total would be a huge win for "Black Swan" as it cost Fox Searchlight and Cross Creek Pictures only about $13 million to make.