It took a bunch of cartoon birds to get moviegoers to head out to the cinema again.
After seven consecutive weekends in which ticket sales were down compared to the same periods last year, the movie business finally began to get back on track this weekend, largely because of the 3-D animated film "Rio."
"Rio," which centers on feathered friends on a Brazilian adventure, grossed a solid $40 million, according to an estimate Sunday from distributor 20th Century Fox. The weekend's other new movie in wide release, "Scream 4," scared up a so-so $19.3 million.
All told, business was up nearly 12% this weekend in comparison with the same weekend in 2010. But overall, the box office is in a slump: Revenue for 2011 is down 19%, while attendance has suffered a 20% decline, according to Hollywood.com.
Indeed, whereas "Rio" posted the biggest opening of any film in 2011, at this time last year a number of films had already debuted to more than $40 million, including "Alice in Wonderland," "How to Train Your Dragon" and "Valentine's Day."
The G-rated "Rio" was able to find success because it attracted a broad audience: The crowd that saw it was split 50-50 between older and younger viewers and skewed only slightly more female. The movie was given an average grade of A, according to market research firm CinemaScore.
"When people see something good in the marketplace, it gets them in the moviegoing habit," said Bert Livingston, general sales manager for 20th Century Fox. "This movie has a lot of heart. [Even] adults see 'Rio' and think, 'Are you kidding me? Did I really just tear up at a cartoon?'"
The movie was easily able to fend off competition from "Hop," the animated family film that had been No. 1 the previous two weekends. This weekend, the Universal Pictures release brought in an additional $11.2 million, bringing its domestic total to $82.6 million.
"Rio," the latest release from Fox-owned animation company Blue Sky Studios, cost about $90 million to produce after tax incentives. As such, the movie should end up being profitable, especially because it is already off to a great start abroad.
The movie, which features the voices of actors Jesse Eisenberg and Anne Hathaway, had already grossed $75 million heading into the weekend and premiered in 21 additional countries this weekend. It added $53.9 million to its international tally, which stands at $129.1 million. The movie continues to perform best in Brazil, where it is set and where it held its premiere last month.
Many of Blue Sky's films have done strong business overseas. All three films in the computer-animated "Ice Age" franchise have made more abroad than domestically. The most recent installment in the series, 2009's "Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs," grossed $886.7 million worldwide, with $690.1 million of that total coming from international ticket sales.
Meanwhile, pre-release audience surveys had indicated that the fourth installment of the "Scream" franchise would end up with more than $25 million in ticket sales on its opening weekend. The film was produced by the Weinstein Co.'s genre label Dimension Films for about $40 million, meaning that the movie is off to a decent start.
But its debut fell far short of the most recent installments of the horror series. In 1997, "Scream 2" opened to $32.9 million, and 2000's "Scream 3" started with $34.7 million. The first two "Scream" films ended up with more than $100 million at the domestic box office, while "Scream 3's" final gross was a slightly lower $89.1 million.
It has been 11 years since the last time the iconic Ghostface killer was on the big screen, which may be why "Scream 4" didn't open to a bigger number. Of those who saw the movie, 46% were older than 25, an older-than-average crowd for a horror film, indicating that those who saw the movie were likely already familiar with the franchise. Heading into the weekend, the movie was generating interest largely from young males, many of whom may have been unable to see the film because of its R rating.
"That does limit you a little bit when the kids can't get in, but the product is the product. We don't want kids sneaking in," said Erik Lomis, president of theatrical distribution and home entertainment for the Weinstein Co. "Clearly, what we got is people who loved the earlier films in the franchise coming back and introducing it to a whole new generation of fans. Once word gets out that it's a fun, scary time, I think we're positioned well."
Internationally, the thriller collected a studio-estimated $18 million in 30 foreign markets, taking the No. 1 spot in the United Kingdom.