Inside Pulse Box Office Report: Inception Up Against Schmucks, Cats & Dogs and Zac Efron

So Leo, as a star on the rise you passed on the role of Dirk Diggler. How come?

July is in the books and we can now begin the countdown to the end of the summer movie season. This summer has been a mixed bag in terms of quality entertainment. The A-Team has been the season’s best popcorn-infused action movie; The Karate Kid showed serious legs (and kicks for that matter) to the surprising sum of $237.5 million worldwide; and Sex and the City 2, well, it sucked something awful. Audiences can be fickle with their entertainment dollar as this summer has proven. Star-driven vehicles haven’t delivered as well as studios had hoped – unless you’re a comedian named Adam Sandler. The best showings of the summer have been because of a certain animation studio and a director who has built enough credibility that a studio could cut him a blank check and get a profit in return.

With the latter I speak of Christopher Nolan. This weekend his film Inception matched an achievement that only Alice in Wonderland and Shrek Forever After accomplished this year. It is the third film this year – not counting Avatar because it was a 2009 release – to finish three consecutive weekends at number one. Inflated earnings from IMAX pricing is no doubt, but it is the hot water-cooler film at the moment. It should pass $200 million later this week, but it may not have the legs to reach $300 million domestically, which would be far lower than Iron Man 2, Alice in Wonderland, and yes, even The Twilight Saga: Eclipse. But it will probably end the year as the most successful film that isn’t part of a franchise or based off any published work .

Finishing in second place this weekend was Dinner for Schmucks, a comedy that had to push back its release date so that it wouldn’t have to open the same week Nolan’s “Dream Police” which arrested the minds of viewers. The trailers for Schmucks weren’t all they were cracked up to be, and comedy’s box office had a similar fate. Not even an appearance by Zach Galifinakis (who helped The Hangover become the most successful R-rated comedy in film history) couldn’t help a comedy toplined by Judd Apatow regulars. It just goes to show you that director Jay Roach (Austin Powers, Meet the Parents) is not infallible, and that the writing team behind The Ex (aka Fast Track) didn’t have a handle on the material.

Proving that stars in action vehicles are still a match, Salt only had a 46.5% drop and finished with $19.3 million for the weekend. The action thriller should make a tidy mint overseas where audiences are still enamored by movie stars and celebritydom, and Angelina Jolie is one of the biggest ones today. She’s like Leonardo DiCaprio in that respect. Overseas their movies either perform as well as they do in the States or they make upwards of 2x more. Jolie’s going to need that if Salt is to have a sequel, which isn’t outside the realm of possibility, especially since the film has an open-ended conclusion.

Despicable Me is approaching $200 million which is 3x more than it cost to produce. No estimates on print and ad costs (maybe as high as $100 million?), but with only $29 million overseas, the animated hit has yet to reach its full potential. (It won’t hit the UK until mid-October!) The marketing strategy for Despicable Me was slow to develop, because when the first trailer appeared last July it didn’t give a clear indication of what the movie was about. Two more teasers would follow before the first full theatrical trailer could be revealed at the end of March 2010. Positive reviews and word-of-mouth from kids and adults seems to have helped in the profit department.

I may not have Edward’s pale skin, but look at my cool blue eyes.

If Despicable Me is a kids’ movie that left many howling in delight, No. 5 placeholder Cats & Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore had them howling in disgust. Nine years ago, the first Cats & Dogs opened at $21 million and would make $200 million worldwide when it was all said and done. This unnecessary sequel, which could have easily been dropped to video a few years ago, had the benefit of inflated ticket prices (both 2D and 3D), opened at $12.5 million. The original’s $60 million budget may have been thought of costly back in 2001, but in 2010 it’s only $20 million more than the average studio comedy or film feature. Plus the sequel replaces many of the voices heard in the original. Gone are Tobey Maguire as Lou the Beagle (replaced by Neil Patrick Harris). Nick Nolte has taken the place of Alec Baldwin’s Butch, and Wallace Shawn uses his wits to outsmart The Critic‘s Jon Lovitz to voice Calico.

Okay is anyone realistically expecting Zac Efron to be a movie star? Even if the visibility of the movie star seems to be waning, a star’s marketability can benefit a movie property that wouldn’t get off the ground otherwise. Picture Seven Pounds with Will Smith. If it starred anyone but the Fresh Prince would you watch it? After a pair of films that had $60 million plus openings (I Am Legend, Hancock), Smith opened Seven Pounds in November 2008. It made a little under $15 million. The subject matter was just too different for audiences who prefer seeing Smith beat up aliens and villains on his way to save Earth, mankind, and show the world at how bad this boy can be. From the advertisements Charlie St. Cloud looked like Lifetime movie-of-the-week material. But it stars Zac Efron whose strong fanbase is still willing to pony up money to see him on the big screen. So for Cloud to open in the $12 million range is not bad for a guy who is trying to put his High School Musical days behind him.

Toy Story 3 is still a topic of box office conversation finishing its seventh weekend with $5 million. The animated hit for Pixar is just $10 million shy of hitting $400 million domestic, which it should do sometime in the next few weeks. Right behind it is Grown Ups with $4.5 million. It appears families and man-children just can’t get enough of Sandler and the boys. The Sorcerer’s Apprentice‘s audience dropped 55% this weekend as it lost another 980 screens. The Fox family movie Ramona and Beezus, based off the series of books by librarian turned author Beverly Cleary, dropped out of the top ten. Apparently, Beezus was a total smash-and-grab for Fox before it cleans up on home video. Comparing the two studios, Disney and Fox, at least Fox’s summer releases have earned enough to match or better their individual production budgets. Print and ad costs is a different story, however.

Skipping over The Twilight Saga: Eclipse to talk about the arthouse circuit, The Kids Are All Right is nearing $10 million (versus a production budget of $4 million). Not a huge hit, but Focus Features shouldn’t complain. It will get rewarded in due time with award kudos and other knickknacks. New releases included The Concert, The Dry Land with America Ferrera and a documentary on Mr. Playboy himself, Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist, and Rebel. But the big winner was Get Low starring Robert Duvall and Bill Murray. Opening on four screens, the period drama made $90k.

1. Inception – $27.5 million ($363 million worldwide)
2. Dinner for Idiots (call them what they are) – $23.3 million
3. Salt – $19.3 million ($71 million)
4. Despicable Steve – $15.5 million ($190 million)
5. Cats and Dogs 2: A CATastrophe – $12.5 million
6. Charlie St. Cloud – $12.1 million
7. Toy Story 3 – $5 million ($826 million worldwide)
8. Grown Ups but Still Man-Children – $4.5 million ($151 million)
9. The Sorcerer’s Apprentice – $4.3 million ($52 million)
10. The Twilight Saga: Only Two More Movies to Go! – $4 million ($645 million worldwide)

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