Most of Hollywood spent the weekend preparing for the Oscars, but moviegoers preferred to go to war.
"Act of Valor," a military action movie featuring real Navy SEALs, opened to a solid $24.7 million, according to an estimate from distributor Relativity Media, making it by far the most popular choice for audiences.
"Good Deeds," the latest movie from writer-director Tyler Perry, opened to a decent $16 million. It's the second-smallest opening ever for the prolific filmmaker and actor, ahead of only 2007's "Daddy's Little Girls."
"Wanderlust," a new Judd Apatow-produced comedy starring Jennifer Aniston and Paul Rudd, and the thriller "Gone," starring Amanda Seyfried, were both flops, opening to just $6.6 million and $5 million, respectively.
"Act of Valor," which has won plaudits for its ultra-realistic action sequences that feature the SEAL stars in training exercises but not for its leads' iffy acting skills, was a big bet for Relativity. The financially struggling independent studio topped other bidders by paying $13.5 million for rights to the movie produced by production company Bandito Bros. It also committed tens of millions of dollars to an extensive marketing campaign that included four ads in and around the Super Bowl and online material targeting video game players.
But the investment appears to be paying off, as box-office receipts came in at the high end of pre-release expectations. Just as important, audiences loved the film, giving it an average grade of A, according to market research firm CinemaScore. That was not only true for men, who made up 71% of the audiences, but for women too.
"I think the biggest asset we have at this point is word of mouth," said Relativity president of distribution Kyle Davies. "You can't buy that and you can't create it. It has to happen organically."
Going forward, Davies said he's hopeful the buzz will help "Act of Valor" to expand beyond just action-loving men.
Despite its softer-than-usual opening for a Tyler Perry movie, distributor Lionsgate is optimistic that "Good Deeds" will ultimately end up close to the filmmaker's average gross of about $50 million. David Spitz, the studio's executive vice president of distribution, noted that a strong Friday-to-Saturday box-office increase of 25%, plus an A CinemaScore, indicates that Perry's mostly female and African American fan base loved the movie.
The same can't be said for "Wanderlust," which had the second-lowest opening ever for a movie produced by comedy guru Apatow, ahead of the 2007 music parody "Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story." The film about an uptight Manhattan couple who move to a commune got a CinemaScore of B-minus. It was financed by Universal Pictures and a fund previously managed by Relativity for around $35 million.
The weak opening for "Gone" marks the second time in a row that a film released by Summit Entertainment has opened behind one from the studio that bought it in January, Lionsgate, on the same weekend. The picture opened so poorly, in fact, that it enjoys the dubious distinction of being the lowest nationwide premiere for a movie so far in 2012.
The largely female audience didn't like the low-budget movie, for which Summit acquired domestic distribution rights from financier Lakeshore Entertainment, giving it a CinemaScore of just C-plus.
Among Oscar-nominated films, "The Artist" enjoyed the strongest weekend, with ticket sales up 23% to $3 million.
A trio of movies that opened Feb. 10 all continued to do well this weekend. The Channing Tatum-Rachel McAdams romantic tearjerker "The Vow" became the first film released by Sony Pictures' Screen Gems label to surpass $100 million. The Denzel Washington thriller "Safe House" is close behind and will pass $100 million in the next few days.
"Journey 2: The Mysterious Island," starring Dwayne Johnson, beat both those pictures this weekend, as it dropped just 32% on its third weekend to $13.5 million. The film from Warner Bros.' New Line Cinema label has done particularly well overseas, where it has grossed $159.2 million.