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“Contraband” scores surprisingly large debut, “Beauty & the Beast” opens well.

By Scott Mendelson I’ve talked a lot about how the under-reported story of 2011 box office was the return to fiscal sanity in regards to production budgets and this weekend is a prime example. We have three big openers, all of which cost under $30 million, which means all of them are well on their way to profitability merely by posting a solid if-not-spectacular opening. Shocking all of Mendelson’s Memos box office analysts (IE – me), Mark Wahlberg powered the low-budget ($25 million) and R-rated Contraband to a $24 million Fri-Sun/$28 million Fri-Mon debut all by himself to win the weekend. Wahlberg has had his share of big weekends (Planet of the Apes, The Perfect Storm, The Happening, etc), but they all arguably had larger factors at play other than just Walhberg’s relatively limited star-power. The closest comparison is the 2005 debut of Four Brothers, but I’d argue that at least some of the credit for that $21 million debut goes to director John Singleton, along with the fact that it was hard-R action picture in a PG-13 time. Comparability, Shooter debuted in early 2007 with $15 million, albeit against the $24 million opening weekend of TMNT and the $19 million third-weekend of 300. Chalk it up to lack of demo competition, a growing appetite for R-rated genre fare, a token boost from Kate Beckinsale’s token fanbase, or something in the marketing that I frankly didn’t see, but Walhberg just scored his biggest ‘all by myself!’ debut of his career.

The picture is a shining example of the most positive trend over the last 1.5 years or so. While Shooter (which had a boatload of character actors in small roles and an apparently larger scale) cost $60 million in 2007, Contraband cost just $25 million to produce, so it will be quite profitable without even factoring in international dollars and the long life that action pictures exhibit post-theatrical (it will play on TNT in the afternoon for decades to come). While the last decade or so has seen a huge decline in R-rated genre fare, owing partially to the 2001 FCC crackdown on marketing such fare to younger audiences, there is a real marketplace for action films that actually show bloodshed, allow characters to use real profanity, and don’t cut away or tone down the sound effects. It is arguably this starved demographic that is primarily responsible for the career of Jason Statham, and Contraband’s ‘make your budget back in one weekend’ success proves that there is a real profitability if you can’t still pump out a down-and-dirty action film that doesn’t break the bank. One film does not make a trend, but this film along with the genuinely leggy run of David Fincher’s The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (which still cost too much, even as it slowly makes its way to $100 million with $89 million thus far) and the likes of The Lincoln Lawyer last year, shows that there is a sizable, if limited, audience hunger for adult films aimed at adult audiences.

Coming in at second place was the erotic psycho-sexual drama Beauty and the Beast. The 3D-converted re-release of the classic 1991 Disney cartoon debuted with a rock-solid $18 million over its Fri-Sun frame. This was of course the second (or third if you count the Toy Story/Toy Story 2 double feature in September 2009) retrofitted rerelease of a classic Disney cartoon, something that Disney aims to make a regular feature as in the days before VHS and DVD saturation. The film opened a bit below the $30 million debut of The Lions King last September, but not every re-release is going to do exactly what the previous one did. Considering Disney already did the 3D conversion for a Blu Ray release late last year, this theatrical exhibition is pure profit, so nice work everyone. As it is, I sampled the first half of the film over the (I was on a Disney cruise and they showed it over the weekend and it’s striking how much it has operated as a template, even more than The Little Mermaid, for the next twenty years of Disney animated features. Anyway, I have no idea what the legs will be like on this one, but expect this 3D release to help cross $200 million and move up the chain of all-time grossing Disney cartoons. Coupled with its original 1991 run and a $25 million IMAX re-release in 2002, it now sits with $189 million domestic and $395 million worldwide.

Opening in third place was the Alcon/Warner Bros release Joyful Noise. The Queen Latifah/Dolly Parton/Keke Palmer gospel drama earned $11 million over the Fri-Sun frame. The picture cost around $30 million, meaning that it only needs slightly decent legs ala last year’s Soul Surfer ($10 million opening, $43 million finish) or Dolphin Tale ($19m/$72m) to qualify as a solid hit. The film played 73% female and 65% over 35 years old. It’s right in the comfort zone for Queen Latifah vehicles, as she averages around $8-12 million when she’s not part of a larger ensemble. The two big expansions this weekend were The Iron Lady and Carnage. The Meryl Streep-as-Margaret Thatcher biopic expanded to 802 theaters and earned $5.6 million, and it will surely have strong legs as the Oscar season kicks into gear in a couple days. Less successful was the 479 screen expansion of Roman Polanski’s Carnage. The awards-season also-ran earned just $786,000 on 494 screens. Barring some freak Golden Globe triumph for Jodie Foster tonight and/or inexplicable Oscar nominations, this one is pretty much finished.

There isn’t much to say about the various holiday holdovers that hasn’t already been said. Well, there is one thing. To the surprise of no one paying attention last weekend, The Devil Inside dropped 76.6% in weekend two, which is the nineteenth-biggest second-weekend drop in history, and the third-biggest for a 2000+ screen release as well as the second-biggest for any film earning anything over $13 million. Oh well, the film cost $1 million and has earned $47.5 million by Monday, so Paramount can cry all the way to the bank. Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol is proving quite the marathon runner, as it now sits at $189 million domestic (by Monday) and $510 million worldwide. It’s currently Tom Cruise’s third-highest grossing film domestically and worldwide (behind Mission: Impossible II and War of the Worlds). Ever more impressive is the sturdy run of Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows. Written off by many (including to a certain extent myself) when it debuted last month to just 2/3 of the original’s opening, it is making a run at $200 million domestic and $500 million international (it’s currently at $170 million in the US and $392 million worldwide). The Adventures of Tintin is nearing $70 million domestic and $350 million worldwide. Let me again stress the impressiveness of a film that will likely end up with $80 million in the US off a mere $2.3 million opening day. The two best films of the year-end Oscar race, Tinker Tailor Solider Spy and Young Adult now sit with $15 million, while The Darkest Hour just crossed $20 million while nearing $50 million worldwide. War Horse is galloping at a steady pace hitting $65 million this weekend and needing some Oscar love to get to $100 million. More surprising is the genuine strength of We Bought A Zoo, which has now earned $63 million.

To read more go to Mendelson Memo

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