Underworld: Awakenings and Red Tails score. Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close and Haywire falter.

By Scott Mendelson

HollywoodNews.com: Like clockwork, the fourth entry in the ongoing Underworld franchise debuted in the third weekend of January to take the top spot at the box office with a $20 million+ debut. While the original opened in September of 2003, the rest of the films have all used the mid-January berth every three years. As so it is that Underworld: Awakenings (trailer) debuted with $25.4 million this weekend. In pure numbers, that’s the second biggest debut of the series, behind the $30 million opening of Underworld: Evolution back in 2006. But in terms of inflation/tickets sold/etc, it’s actually a bit under the $22 million debut ($28 million adjusted for inflation) of the original Underworld. Considering the last entry, Rise of the Lycans, was a stripped-down prequel lacking franchise star Kate Beckinsale, it’s arguably more fair to compare this fourth entry to the first two films in the series. As such, it’s slightly lacking. The budget was $70 million (way up from parts 1 and 3, which cost just #22 million and $35 million respectively, and a bit up from the second film’s $50 million budget) and the film had a theoretical 3D price-bump, yet the results weren’t even up to the series’s peak. Still, Sony is playing a different game this time around…

The comparison that Sony hopes to emulate is not to the prior Underworld films (only the second of which crossed $100 million worldwide), but the late-2010 Sony release Resident Evil: Afterlife. That too was a series that had a bit budget increase on the fourth film as well as the 3D gimmick. The previous three films in that series had done between $41 and $50 million in domestic box office and between $102 and $147 million worldwide. The fourth entry pulled in $60 million domestic off a series-high $26 million debut, but it earned an absolutely stunning $296 million worldwide thanks to massive overseas numbers. As I’ve noted any number of time elsewhere, 3D is still a major factor in overseas markets, where 2D options are less plentiful and 3D films are that-much harder to pirate. Sony would like for Underworld: Awakenings to surpass the $62 million gross of Underworld: Evolution, but merely surpassing that film’s $111 million worldwide take won’t justify the $70 million budget this time around. Sony is playing a risky game, that those who flocked to one female-driven science-fiction action franchise that happens to be in 3D the fourth time around will flock to another with equal verve. So in this case, like a number of summer tent pole films, the domestic numbers are almost beside the point. But for what it’s worth, the film played 59% 3D, 15% IMAX, and 7% other ‘large-screen’ venues. Meaning that just 28% of the audience watched Underworld IV in regular 35mm 2D.

The next big opener was the surprisingly solid debut for Red Tails (review). The Lucasfilm-produced Tuskegee Airmen action drama debuted with a pretty terrific $19.1 million. The longtime passion project for George Lucas was a rarity in today’s marketplace, a big budget ($58 million) action film centered entirely around an African-American cast. Even with the financial strength of six Star Wars films, Lucas was unable to get funding for the film, so he dipped into his own pockets to produce and market the picture while allowing 20th Century Fox to distribute. The success or failure of this one will depend on legs and word of mouth (it apparently received an A from Cinemascore), but the 3.1x weekend multiplier bodes well. As expected, the film was marketed heavily in African American communities and the opening weekend was apparently made up partially from African American schoolkids who had been bused to matinee showings. Fair or not, the film will likely be seen as a test case for larger-budget genre fare starring African Americans, so it’s worth rooting for even if you liked the movie less than I did.

The last wide-release opening was Steven Soderbergh’s Haywire, which opened with $9 million. The film cost just $23 million and was the experimental auteur’s foray into pure action film making. The gimmick is that he cast a completely untested actress name Gina Corano, whose prior claim to fame is being an MMA champion. Point being, she most certainly can and does fight convincingly onscreen, but she can’t act worth a damn and everyone knows it. One of the perverse pleasures of the film is watching Soderbergh cut around and otherwise obscure the performance of his lead character, whose lack of acting ability really isn’t her fault (she’s not an actress, she’s a professional ass-kicker). The film received a D+ from Cinemascore, which is a bit surprising. It surely is an artier and more at-arms-length clinical kind of action picture, but it certainly delivers the goods (my brother-in-law, who isn’t exactly a hardcore fan of stereotypical art house cinema, loved it). Anyway, after the explosive success of Contagion ($135 million worldwide on a $60 million budget), Soderbergh has some leeway to play around a bit.

The other major debut was the wide-release of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (review). The Tom Hanks/Sandra Bullock post-9/11 drama has been playing in six theaters since Christmas day. The film pulled down an okay $10.5 million in its first weekend of wide release. The would-be Oscar bait film is expected to get mostly shut out on Tuesday, so the $25 million drama will have to get by on old-fashioned word-of-mouth and/or star power. In holdover news, Contraband (essay) had a mediocre 49% drop in weekend two, ending its tenth day with $46 million. Since the film cost just $25 million to produce, this is an unmitigated win for Mark Wahlberg and Universal. Beauty and the Beast 3D (review) dropped a harsh 51% for a $8.5 million second weekend. That’s not nearly as strong as the 26% drop for The Lion King 3D (review) last September, but again, these 3D-converted re releases are pretty much free money. So a $33 million current cume is enough to push the whole movie over the $200 million mark in America. Joyful Noise dropped 45% in weekend two, giving the $30 million church gospel drama $21.9 million in ten days.

In holiday holdover news, Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol (review) is just shy of the $200 million mark ($197 million), while Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (review) will cross $180 million this week (it’s at $178 million now, having crossed $400 million worldwide late last week). The Iron Lady took just a 31% drop in weekend two of wide release, giving the film over $12.6 million thus far and a solid foothold when Meryl Streep’s inevitable Oscar nomination arrives on Tuesday. The Descendants (review) and (non-Oscar bait) The Devil Inside have both passed $50 million, while would-be Oscar front runner The Artist (review/essay) now sits with $12 million and should-be frontrunner Hugo (review) just crossed $55 million. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (review) now sits with $94 million while both Steven Spielberg films, The Adventures of Tintin (review) and War Horse (review) are at $72 million. Expect all three to disappear pretty quickly if Oscar doesn’t shine on them this week. Holding somewhat strong despite the likelihood of Oscar love are Young Adult (review) at $16 million and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy (review) with $18 million. Both darn-well should be leading the pack on Tuesday, but alas…

Photo by Lucas Films©

To read more go to Mendelson’s Memo

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