None of the movies set for Labor Day weekend seem poised for big grosses, though one of the two new horror movies should at least hit the top spot. With the Paranormal Activity movies recently reinvigorated the found footage horror genre, Apollo 18 sets out to replicate that success by moving the action to the moon. Paranormal Activity is the exception, not the rule, though, and Apollo 18 would be lucky to end up in a similar spot as The Last Exorcism, which opened to $20.4 million last August before crashing to a $41 million total.
If Apollo 18 fails to take off, Shark Night 3D could take its place atop the charts. The movie faces a number of challenges, though, most notably its distributor's poor track record (aside from Limitless, Relativity has been a bomb factory) and the increasingly unpopular 3D format at the forefront of its marketing campaign. The movie's best comparison (and probably the reason for its existence) is Piranha 3D, which opened to just $10.1 million last August. Sharks are more popular than piranhas, though, which should offset the 3D stigma and result in at least a comparable opening.
Focus Features' long-delayed thriller The Debt opens on Wednesday, which is the same strategy they employed with The American last Labor Day weekend. The American had George Clooney and a ubiquitous, straight-forward campaign and still only managed a $19.8 million six-day start, which is more than The Debt has any chance of making.
Bottom Line: Apollo 18 and Shark Night should battle for the top spot in the mid-teens for the four-day weekend, though both should see steep drops afterwards.
After a few weeks of dreary content, the second weekend of September provides a few releases that have a legitimate chance of breaking out. With a strong cast and a simultaneous IMAX release, Warner Bros. is trying to push Contagion as an early Fall event movie. Its marketing has primarily focused on Matt Damon's character and the rather unwieldy tagline ("Don't talk to anyone. Don't touch anyone.") so far, which is fine but not overly impressive. Still, Contagion is currently ranking as Box Office Mojo readers' top choice to see in September, which tends to be a strong indicator of a movie's awareness.
Warrior may be the underdog this weekend, but it shouldn't be counted out yet. The Rocky-like tale of two estranged brothers competing in a UFC tournament is from the director of Miracle, which earned $64.4 million back in 2004. Distributor Lionsgate has been screening the movie non-stop all over the country in an attempt to gin up strong word-of-mouth, and they are also doing outreach to faith communities (a "Film Companion" with Bible passages is being distributed at the screenings). The lead actors aren't yet marquee names, though, and UFC is somewhat of a niche sport, so Warrior is not likely to break out of the sports drama norm, at least in its first weekend.
Bucky Larson: Born to Be a Star also opens this weekend, though the Happy Madison production won't have much of an impact. Its title and release date call to mind Dickie Roberts: Former Child Star, which earned just $22.7 million back in 2003. Bucky will be lucky to earn even that much.
Bottom Line: Contagion and Warrior should duke it out, with Contagion likely emerging as the victor, initially at least.
This is the first of three weekends in a row with four nationwide releases and inevitably at least one of the four will go down as a major disappointment. The Straw Dogs remake initially appears to have the edge, though it has a pretty low ceiling. While technically a thriller, the original is fairly dark, and the remake probably shares some of the same DNA as horror remakes like The Last House on the Left and The Hitcher. Based on those comparisons, it's looking at a mid-teens opening at best followed by rapid declines.
Drive will ride on critical buzz and the recent rise in Ryan Gosling's star power, both of which have already helped the movie get a decent amount of attention. Drive's protagonist is a criminal out for redemption, calling to mind The Town, last September's breakout hit. The Town was an action movie set in the popular world of Boston crime, though, while Drive is more of an arthouse movie with action flair to it (its director took home the Best Director prize at this year's Cannes Film Festival). That could turn off some potential viewers, leading to an opening well below The Town's $23.8 million.
Sarah Jessica Parker vehicle I Don't Know How She Does It will aim to be the main attraction for women this weekend (if they aren't already watching Gosling), though Parker's star has faded and the movie doesn't have a clear hook right now. Distributor The Weinstein Company has had an incredible run of underperforming movies lately (Scream 4, Hoodwinked Too!, Spy Kids 4), and this doesn't seem like the one that will reverse that trend.
The wild card this weekend will be the 3D re-release of The Lion King, which remains one of the highest-grossing animated movies ever with $328.5 million (or the equivalent of nearly $600 million adjusted for ticket price inflation). Seeing the movie on the big screen again seems like an exciting proposition, but the 3D aspect is questionable. 3D makes this an expensive outing for a family of four who may be more inclined to stay home and re-watch their DVD.
Bottom Line: It looks like a toss-up between Straw Dogs and Drive.
The fourth weekend of September aims to determine whether Brad Pitt or Taylor Lautner is more popular. That's obviously not a fair question, considering Lautner is starring in an on-the-run thriller, while Pitt is headlining a talky baseball movie.
While fellow Twilight stars Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart have struggled outside of the franchise, Lautner should have more luck with Abduction. His transition from Twilight heartthrob to action star seems logical enough, and the movie is the kind of thriller that can easily attract both men and women. A good comparison is Eagle Eye, which opened to $29.2 million around the same time three years ago.
Baseball movies aren't typically big moneymakers, as the highest-grossing one ever was A League of Their Own ($107.5 million). Distributor Sony/Columbia is aiming to counteract that by placing star Brad Pitt front-and-center in all of Moneyball's marketing. Nearly all of Pitt's live-action nationwide releases in the last ten years, with the exception of Burn After Reading, have made over $100 million. With baseball fans more likely to stay at home and catch the end of the regular season and the beginning of the playoffs, though, that amount is going to be very tough for Moneyball to reach.
Dolphin Tale is targeting family audiences that are being largely neglected in September, though, similar to The Lion King, it has the 3D problem to deal with. Star Diane Lane was Secretariat last fall, which after a soft opening ended up with a solid $59.7 million. That's on the high end for Dolphin Tale, but this is the kind of fare that can breakout if families really connect to the central story.
Jason Statham thriller Killer Elite, the first movie from upstart distributor Open Road Films, is the final nationwide release scheduled for Sept. 23. Recent Statham movies (excluding The Expendables) have maxed out at $36.3 million (Death Race remake), and, even with the inclusion of Robert DeNiro and Clive Owen, it's hard to imagine Open Road can get this movie past that modest mark.
Bottom Line: Lautner and Abduction probably have the edge over Pitt and Moneyball for the weekend, though Moneyball should have more staying power.
As it's over a month away at this point, the hardest weekend to predict is the last one in September. With its psychological thriller aspects, Dream House seems like the safest bet out of the entire group. Universal hasn't mounted much of a campaign so far, though, and star Daniel Craig's drawing power is highly questionable following Cowboys & Aliens's poor performance. Dream House gets a pass if it ends up in the same area as similar movies like Gothika ($59.7 million) and The Forgotten ($67.1 million).
50/50 toes the line between comedy and drama, which may be hard to swallow considering it's about a guy who gets cancer. Seth Rogen provides comedic relief as one of his typical stoner/slacker characters, and star Joseph Gordon-Levitt has been on the rise in recent years, thanks to (500) Days of Summer and Inception. Overall, this is a tricky sell, and probably isn't in line for a huge opening.
Summer 2011 was loaded with successful R-rated comedies like Bridesmaids and Horrible Bosses, but as the months went on audience fatigue set in. Distributor 20th Century Fox is probably hoping that by the time What's Your Number? comes out at the end of the month, audiences will be back on board, and likeable leads Anna Faris and Chris Evans should help a bit. A good target is Faris's House Bunny, which earned $48.2 million in 2008.
The last nationwide release of the month, Courageous, is from the same director as Fireproof, and aims to attract the same religious audiences that movie did when it made $33.5 million over the same fall period in 2008. Courageous doesn't have the same compelling action as firefighter drama Fireproof did, though, so reaching that total looks unlikely.
Finally, Machine Gun Preacher is currently slated for a nationwide expansion on Sept. 30, though that's probably contingent on its reception during its limited opening a week earlier. It's the first limited debut being handled by distributor Relativity, and, even with strong buzz coming out of the Toronto International Film Festival, it doesn't seem like the kind of movie that's going to platform well.
Bottom Line: None of these releases are all that strong, with Dream House being the most likely movie to unseat Abduction or Moneyball.
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• August 2011 Preview
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• Opening Weekends - September
• Biggest Aggregated Months - September