Box Office Spelunker: December 11-13

This was a most exciting weekend at the box office. Not because any of the films hit or bombed spectacularly; but rather because audiences didn't do what they were told by the hype machine.  Even though "Chronicles of Narnia: Voyage of the Dawn Treader" and "The Tourist" took the top two slots, with $24.5 million and $17 million, respectively, it's clear that audiences responded with a resounding "eh" to each of the two films -- one a generic family entertainment based on C.S. Lewis' beloved book; the other an international thriller captained by two of brightest and shiniest stars in the galaxy, Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie. Need proof? Take a look at the relative chump change, $6 million apiece,  the bumbling behemoths earned on average for every screen each played.

There will be no blaming this on moviegoer apathy, holiday shopping, or the gravitational pull of the living room couch. People went to the movies this weekend, just not to the big ones. Compare the above tallies to "Black Swan" -- director Darren Aronofsky's $13 million indie exploring the dark undercurrents of female sexuality, body image, and ambition through the prism of the professional ballet world. "Swan" pocketed an average of $37,000 for every venue it played. Granted, both "Narnia" and "The Tourist " were shown on thousands more screens than "Swan" (approximately 3,400 and 2,600 for anyone who's counting). But still, this rejection of Hollywood assembly-line filmmaking may signal a subtle shift in audiences, who may be less willing to be led along blindly by blitz advertising and the ineluctable allure of celebrity to blow ten bucks and two hours on a popcorn-delivery-vehicle like the ones mentioned above.

Of course, this is the season when studios, big and small, wheel out their best material. We're smack in the middle of the brief window when Hollywood trusts that audiences are capable of temporarily suspending  their taste for schlock and remembering what it's like to be challenged, provoked, uplifted, saddened, angered, and transported into unfamiliar places by movies. This week's handful of films most likely to elicit various combos of the above include:

  • "The Tempest" (weekend gross: $45,000 for 5 screens): Director Julie Taymor has concocted a characteristically audacious assault on the senses with this adaptation of Shakespeare's final play, starring Helen Mirren in the traditionally male role of Prospero.
  • "127 Hours" (weekend gross: $985,000), featuring  James Franco in a primal performance exploring the outer limits of human desperation and strength in Danny Boyle's adaptation of Aron Ralston's Between a Rock and a Hard Place.
  • "The King's Speech" (weekend gross: $592,000): As the verbally impaired King George VI, Colin Firth delivers the tour-de-force performance we knew he had in him ever since his definitive Darcy in the 1995 BBC version of Pride and Prejudice. Netflix it now if you haven't already.
  • "The Fighter" (weekend gross: $320,000): Don't be fooled by what looks like a big studio-produced inspirational boxing drama starring Mark Wahlberg as a working-class aspiring boxer who enlists his crack-addict brother, played by an emaciated Christian Bale, as his trainer. This is actually an intimate look at the power of perseverance and complexities of brotherly love. Most importantly, it marks the long-overdue return of the talented indie filmmaker, David O. Russell ("Three Kings").

Photo by Niko Tavenise, courtesy of ©Fox Searchlight.