SATURDAY PM/SUNDAY AM, 7TH UPDATE: Another strong day for Twentieth Century Fox’s prequel Rise Of The Planet Of The Apeswhich scored a $19.4M Saturday (small -2% drop from Friday’s $19.7M), indicating word of mouth was good about these CGI animals and Andy Serkis. With an estimated $14.9M Sunday that makes for a 3-day weekend of $54M, lots more than the $35M which Hollywood expected. No doubt about it: origins story movies are working this summer if they’re done as well as this and X-Men: First Class which was another prequel on a Fox franchise. Nice win for former News Corp No. 2-turned-showbiz producer Peter Chernin and his film lieutenant Dylan Clark on Chernin Entertainment’s first film release. The pair said in a statement Sunday: “We’re thrilled to launch Chernin Entertainment with a film that so positively resonated with audiences. We’re proud of the artistic achievement as it is a testament to a smart script, great direction by Rupert Wyatt, stellar actor performances, the amazing visual effects created by the WETA team, and the passion and dedication of the entire crew and our partners at Twentieth Century Fox.” The other major studio new release, Universal’s The Change-Up, surprisingly ticked up (+4%) from Friday for $5.2M Saturday but that’s still a very disappointing $13.5M weekend. This truly isn’t Ryan Reynolds’ summer of stardom after the collapse of Green Lantern here and abroad. Stars are supposed to open movies to at least $20M. Overall moviegoing this weekend looks like $170M, which is up +30% from last year.
Here’s the Top 10:

1. Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes (Fox) NEW [3,648 Theaters]
Friday $19.7M, Saturday $19.4M, Weekend $54M

It’s not just surprising but kinda shocking that Time magazine declared this “2011′s Best Film So Far” and that even fanboy websites declared that “whatever expectations you’re likely to have going in, there’s a good chance this movie will surpass them”. Directed by Rupert Wyatt and written by Rick Jaffa & Amanda Silver, Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes seemed too schlocky a project for Peter Chernin to waste his time producing. Or so Hollywood thought. Its CinemaScore was an ‘A-’ and exit polls showed males making up 54% of the audience which was 59% at or over age 25. Why all the fuss over the prequel to such a dated franchise? Because Fox PR claims this is the first live-action film in the history of movies to star, and be told from the point of view of, a sentient animal — a character with human-like qualities, who can strategize, organize and ultimately lead a revolution, and with whom audiences are supposed to experience a real emotional bond. (But my commenters counter: What about Babe etc?) Fox execs point out that the studio wasn’t going to do the guys in ape suits thing again. So the film was impossible to make until James Cameron’s Avatar and Peter Jackson’s WETA Digital progressed performance capture technology to the point of the most realistic CGI ever. Given that, the claimed $93M pricetag co-financed by Fox, Dune Entertainment, and Ingenious seems absurdly modest.

Every single monkey, baboon, and ape in the movie is a product of this performance capture techonology. That earned raves from PETA and for Wyatt a Proggy Award given to animal-friendly companies, people and products. (PETA also showed up at the Ape‘ premiere in LA with signs reading, “Real Apes Love CGI,” and “Thank you, Fox for not using real Apes.”) The buzz this weekend is that Andy Serkis does an award-worthy job as the main chimp Caesar who leads the rebellion. But I don’t know why the trailers I saw mistakenly focused on James Franco who isn’t why moviegoers flocked to opening weekend. Fox was hoping for North American box office in the low-ball $30sM, so $54M is fantastic. “Phenomenal opening validating a sensational marketing effort led by Oren Aviv and Tony Sella,” a Fox exec gushed to me. Then again, tracking has been good for males and fans of the original movies, although softer for females. The fact is that the studio had a lot of ground to make up with this movie because fanboys hated the Tim Burton version from a decade ago. But this origins story scored 82% positive reviews on RottenTomatoes.

Marketing with a company called Mekanism was primarily focused online with the intent to create a global viral phenomenon and spark millions of Internet conversations about the film. There was the strategic use of digital influencers, creative content, and social media platforms to create widespread engagement for over 14 million viral video views and hundreds of millions of earned media impressions. “We’ve created excitement, driven credible word of mouth, and ensured that butts will be in seats to watch Apes Rise on opening weekend,” A Fox exec told me before Friday. WETA Digital hosted a livestream event on Facebook from WETA’s headquarters in New Zealand and gave viewers an exclusive behind-the-scenes look at the work on the film. The livestream event was live on Facebook’s official fan page for Avatar as well.  A free online digital comic book prequel to the movie debuted prior to release from comic series writer Daryl Gregory and artists Damian Couceiro and Tony Parker to set the stage for the movie. There was a new free 5-page digital comic book story weekly since mid-July until the final 10-page conclusion on August 3rd.

2. The Smurfs - 3D (Sony) Week 2 [3,395 Theaters]
Friday $6M, Saturday $8.2M, Weekend $21M (-41%), Cume $76.2M

It’s embarrassing for me just to be writing about The Smurfs. But after just 10 days of release, the film has generated $128.9M worldwide with an overseas cume to date of $52.7M. One of the big surprises of Summer 2011, last weekend’s exceptionally strong debut in North America was followed by enormous strength in several key countries including Mexico, Brazil, Venezuela, Belgium, France and Germany, among others.  This worldwide number is especially impressive when you consider the film has only debuted in about 3 dozen territories. In North America this weekend, The Smurfs saw big mid-week sales that led box office from Monday through Thursday. Strong ticket sales continued into the weekend and went up +37% on Saturday.

3. Cowboys & Aliens (DreamWorks/Universal) Week 2 [3,754 Theaters]
Friday $4.7M, Saturday $6.4M, Weekend $15.7M (-57%), Cume $67.3M

Not an embarrassing drop, but it didn’t have far to fall either. The big question is whether Cowboys & Aliens can make up the deficit overseas where Daniel Craig is a bigger star but also Westerns don’t do well traditionally. For an astute dissection of what went wrong, read this pre-release post by Deadline’s Mike Fleming, Can ‘Cowboys & Aliens’ Lasso Youth?. He answers the questions about why this well-pedigreed pic, despite the godfathering  presence of Steven Spielberg and Imagine’s Ron Howard and Brian Grazer and direction by Jon Favreau, went into the tank. He details the tortured development history involving more than a dozen writers over 14 years. He analyzes the problems of a confused mash-up of two genres that usually don’t cross paths. And he reveals that with a cash break participation pool in the 35% range and no 3D conversion to justify higher ticket prices this movie may have been doomed from the start.

4. The Change-Up (Universal) NEW [2,913 Theaters]
Friday $4.7M, Saturday $5M, Weekend $13.5M

Universal started out the summer very high on this raunchy R-rated comedy with a $52M budget (Relativity was a financing partner) especially because The Change-Up was from the director of Wedding Crashers and the writers of The Hangover. Still it was surprising that David Dobkin would waste his time on such a tired body-switching premise, but this film won’t have the enormous playability or multiples of this summer’s other raunchy R-rated laughers. CinemaScore was a ‘B’ with an audience that was  59% Female vs. 41% male and 50% at or older than age 30 vs. 50% under
30. All along tracking had been strongest with females, with younger females demonstrating the strongest interest. “It’s disappointing. We’re kind of confounded by it,” a Uni exec told me Friday night. “This movie played like the best R-rated comedies we have.” But reviews hammered this pic and trailers looked lame. Marketing was sub-par as if red-band online trailers, one that opened the campaign and one that closed it, would put people in seats. Maybe audiences were tired after so many of Summer 2011′s R-rated comedies.

The TV campaign began early with a spot on the finale for The Family Guy in late May, followed by a run on the NBA Finals in early June and then cable, cable, and more cable channels as well as the TV talk shows. The supposedly “likeable” pairing of Ryan Reynolds and Jason Bateman was a key strategy in publicity, and they did many of their promotional appearances together. Universal fanned out with an extensive word-of-mouth campaign and 350 screenings across the country. But none of it worked.

5. Captain America - 3D (Marvel/Disney/Paramount) Week 3 [3,620 Theaters]
Friday $3.7M, Saturday $5.5M, Weekend $13M, Cume $143.1M
6. Harry Potter/Hallows Pt 2 – 3D (Warner Bros) Week 4 [3,175 Theaters]
Friday $3.3M, Saturday $5.1M, Weekend $12.1M, Cume $342.8M
7. Crazy, Stupid, Love (Warner Bros) Week 2 [3,020 Theaters]
Friday $3.7M, Saturday $4.9M, Weekend $12.1M (-37%), Cume $42.1M
8. Friends With Benefits (Sony) Week 3 [2,398 Theaters]
Friday $1.4M, Saturday $1.9M, Weekend $4.7M, Cume $48.5M
9. Horrible Bosses (New Line/Warner Bros) Week 5 [2,025 Theaters]
Friday $1.3M, Saturday $1.9M, Weekend $4.6M, Cume $105.1M
10. Transformers 3 – 3D (Paramount) Week 6 [1,854 Theaters]
Friday $850K, Saturday $1.3M, Weekend $3M, Cume $344.1M

SATURDAY AM, 4TH UPDATE: Twentieth Century Fox’s prequel Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes is leaping to an easy box office lead in 3,648 North American theaters. Hollywood initially thought the origins story with digital animals, Andy Serkis, and James Franco would follow the same trajectory as last weekend’s Cowboys & Aliens which went on to a $36.4M Friday-Saturday-Sunday. But, remember, that pic got Smurf-ed. The far better reviewed Apes is faring stronger with a very healthy $19.7M Friday (including a low-key $1.254M midnights in only 1,124 locations) for a projected $50M weekend or even higher.

And that’s without the hype and pedigree of DreamWorks/Universal’s Cowboys & Aliens which fell -64% from last Friday to 3rd place this week but at half the budget ($93M, or so Fox claims). Sony Pictures’ The Smurfs held -55% for 2nd place.

But this weekend’s other major studio release, Universal’s The Change-Up, is bottoming in 4th place with $4.7M Friday and just an estimated $13.4M for the weekend from 2,913 venues. This truly isn’t Ryan Reynolds’ summer of stardom after the collapse of Green Lantern here and abroad. It’s a disastrous start considering that stars like Reynolds are supposed to open movies to at least $20M.

For more estimates listed by title, see box office results here...

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