The moribund horror comedy sub-genre showed a glimmer of vitality with the ripsnorting debut of Zombieland, which yanked $24.7 million out of around 3,900 screens at 3,036 sites. Despite Zombieland and the continued strength of Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs and the Toy Story franchise, though, overall weekend business was off six percent from the same period last year, when Beverly Hills Chihuahua ruled, and on the low end for the timeframe.
In the realm of zombie movies, Zombieland had the second highest-grossing start on record behind the Dawn of the Dead remake, but, more importantly, it was the first horror comedy in recent memory to find significant theatrical success. The only horror comedies to claim greater initial attendance in the past two decades were the Scary Movie pictures, but they primarily appealed as spoofs. Failure is the norm, with movies like Jennifer's Body and Snakes on a Plane among the corpses.
Horror comedy struggles with general audiences because of its awkward thematic and tonal clash: comedy is generally benevolent while horror is inherently malevolent, rendering horror comedy too funny to be scary and too scary to be funny. Zombieland skirted this issue by falling squarely on the side of action comedy in its marketing campaign. True to its amusement park-like title, the ads brazenly and clearly touted the picture as a fun ride with Woody Harrelson and crew wisecracking as they easily dispatch zombies. Distributor Sony Pictures' exit polling indicated that 56 percent of the audience was male and 58 percent was under 25 years old.
Coming in second, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs fell harder than last weekend but still held relatively well, considering the Toy Story re-issue claiming many of its 3D runs. Down 37 percent, the animated comedy generated $15.8 million for an $81.5 million total in 17 days.
Toy Story / Toy Story 2 (3D) chimed in with $12.5 million at 1,745 sites. There really aren't any direct comparisons for 3D double features like this, but the performance speaks to the enduring appeal of the Toy Story movies, which had a sizable showing despite their age and broad availability on home video. Distributor Walt Disney Pictures reported an audience composition of 52 percent female, 59 percent under 25 years old, and 76 percent parents and their children.
The advent of The Invention of Lying yielded a modest $7 million at 1,707 sites, which was a step up from the previous Ricky Gervais vehicle, Ghost Town, but below par for a "What If?" comedy. The marketing trumpeted the movie's conceit of an alternate world in which everyone blurts out the truth and lying doesn't exist, until Gervais discovers it. However, unlike Liar Liar and other similar movies, the ads did not present much in the way of story or character, beyond Gervais' vague attempt to bed Jennifer Garner. Hit "What If" comedies relate to audiences through manipulating the world we know. By starting with an imaginary one and without a larger point in its ads, Invention of Lying became mostly about the gimmick and, hence, not a theatrical must. Distributor Warner Bros.' research showed an audience breakdown of 53 percent female and an even split between those under and over 30 years old.
Whip It stumbled in its first box office derby, drumming up $4.7 million at 1,720 sites, and it wasn't for lack of promotion. Director Drew Barrymore's coming-of-age sports comedy-drama featuring Ellen Page from Juno was supported by a spunky advertising campaign (including sneak previews) about self-empowerment, but the movie was a tough sell, given its genre mix and focus on the niche sport of roller skating. According to distributor 20th Century Fox, the audience was 70 percent female and 52 percent 25 years and older.
Meanwhile, Capitalism: A Love Story packed less initial punch than the previous Michael Moore picture, Sicko. The documentary expanded into nationwide release (962 theaters) and grossed $4.4 million at 962 sites. Last weekend's debuts, Surrogates and Fame (2009), continued to disappoint, each dropping over 50 percent. Surrogates made $7.2 million for a $26.3 million total in ten days, while Fame garnered $4.6 million for a $16.5 million tally.