BOX OFFICE: The Help Thwarts Hurricane Irene, New Competition

Just what Hollywood didn’t want. As if last week’s porous showing at the box office wasn’t enough, the arrival of Hurricane Irene this weekend forced theater chains on the east coast to close up. At least when there’s a heat wave it forces people to seek out air-conditioned venues, like a movie theater. The same goes for cold weather. Bundled up, they’ll escape snowstorms and venture inside a theater to get warm. But a hurricane is a different beast entirely. With the onslaught of rain and strong winds theaters made the decision to close early in anticipation of the first hurricane to hit the east coast in several years. Not a great weekend to be a new release hoping to get a foothold in theaters before Labor Day weekend arrives.

It is ironic that The Help, a movie that depicts a black maid being unable to use the inside bathroom during a hurricane, was helped this weekend by a real hurricane. Even without the help of the east coast the film managed to collect $14.5 million and is just a few million shy of making it to $100 million. If you haven’t noticed already, The Help is this year’s Blind Side in terms of Oscar consideration. It’s already a fave with the public and Viola Davis should be a shoe-in for an acting nomination. The question is if Disney will push for lead or supporting.

Coming in second this weekend was the female-driven actioner Columbiana produced by Luc Besson (The Professional, The Fifth Element). It did as well as could have been expected. Besson’s action productions are equivalent to Screen Gems and its output of uninspired thrillers. His last production, 2010’s From Paris with Love, managed to just break even despite its quality being superior to Columbiana. The movie will make money because of home video, but audiences will still have no idea what the title means. Maybe Besson can get his Taken audience back with next year’s Lockout which is basically Taken in space minus Liam Neeson.

In his place is an actor who appeared in this weekend’s third place finisher, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark. Guy Pearce played the architect father who was too concerned with renovating a decrepit mansion to pay attention to his estranged daughter who was being deathly serious about there being little boogeymen in the walls. FilmDistrict’s mistimed release – honestly a movie about haunted happenings inside a musty-smelling house is a Halloween treat; during the summer it is a cruel trick – was felt by audiences that generally don’t like the dread feeling that certain horror movies convey. They stayed away and the $8.7 million gross supports it.

The Guillermo Del Toro low-fi spookfest did just enough to better Fox’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Audiences still love those damn, dirty guys. After four weeks it has accumulated $148 million. The apes distanced themselves from the other new wide release this weekend, Our Idiot Brother with Paul Rudd. The most advertising I saw for this restricted comedy was reading entertainment news and finding out that ABC wouldn’t run a trailer for it on its airways unless certain cuts were made. That threw a curve to the ad campaign that was pretty small to begin with.

In the battle of kiddie flicks and parents’ patience, Spy Kids and its 3D screens bettered The Smurfs and its 3D screens. Kids‘ 50.8 percent drop hopefully means the Spy Kids are finally retired theatrically. It could live on in the DTV market, I suppose. And Smurfs – its a worldwide hit of $382 million. I smurf you not.

Fright Night and Conan the Barbarian opened to less than stellar returns last weekend. This weekend wasn’t much better. Disturbia with a vampire neighbor lost 60% of its audience, but in terms of production costs, Fright Night will be bigger on the domestic scale. Conan and its $90 million budget (note: trusting Marcus Nipsel with $90 million is like trusting Len Wiseman with $200 million – the cost of next year’s Total Recall) will be a bigger success overseas because international audiences just love action spectacles no matter how bad they are.

It was a slow week for the arthouse with only two new releases. Circumstance debuted to $43.5k on seven screens, but Higher Ground had the bigger per-screen average of $7k. It opened at three locations and earned $22.9k. Senna, The Guard and Sarah’s Key all saw expansions this weekend, but it was Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris and its 394 new locations that made it eclipse a domestic gross of $51 million.

1. The Help – $14.3 million ($96.6 million)
2. Columbiana – $10.3 million
3. Don’t Be Afraid of The Dark – $8.7 million
4. Rise of the Planet of the Apes – $8.65 million ($307.5 million worldwide)
5. Our Idiot Brother – $6.6 million
6. Spy Kids: All the Time in the World – $5.7 million ($22.7 million)
7. The Smurfs – $4.8 million ($382 million worldwide)
8. Conan the Barbarian – $3.1 million ($16.5 million)
9. Fright Night – $3 million ($14.2 million)
10. Crazy, Stupid, Love. – $2.9 million ($69.5 million)

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