At the box office 'Super 8' could have been a train wreck the size of the one in the movie, or it could have been a monster hit the size of... Anyway, it was neither. The film debuted in first place (which was expected) with an estimated $37.0 million from Friday to Sunday (which was a little better than expected).
Given the secrecy of the J.J. Abrams movie's marketing campaign (which took pains not to reveal the nature of the monster, à la the Abrams-produced 'Cloverfield'), its complicated premise (both monster flick and nostalgic homage to a childhood spent making home movies and watching Steven Spielberg films) and its lack of star power, it was hard for industry experts to guess how well 'Super 8' would open.
On the plus side: a wide opening on 3,379 screens (including several IMAX venues with surcharges), generally strong reviews, and fanboy fondness for both Abrams and Spielberg, who produced the movie. Predictions had 'Super 8' opening in the low 30s. Not only did the movie do better than that, but a handful of early Thursday screenings, cross-promoted on Twitter to help improve word-of-mouth, added another $1 million or so to the weekend's take, for a four-day total of $38.0 million.
Falling to second place, last week's winner, 'X-Men: First Class,' lost around 55 percent of its business, earning an estimated $25.0 million. That steep fall was not unexpected, since such second-week drops are typical for superhero movies, and since it was competing for much the same audience as 'Super 8.' The mutant-hero prequel has taken in just shy of $100 million in two weekends, and it'll get hammered again this coming weekend when 'Green Lantern' comes out. So it seems unlikely that it will equal or surpass the tally for fellow Marvel superhero saga 'Thor' (still in the top 10 in its sixth week, with $173.6 million to date).
In third place, 'The Hangover Part II' lost another 41 percent of its business, for an estimated take of $18.5 million. Still, that's enough to have pushed the movie past $200 million in its third weekend of release.
'Kung Fu Panda 2' remained the top toon and top family movie in theaters, earning an estimated $16.6 million, good for fourth place. It lost just 30 percent of last week's business and has taken in $126.9 million in three weekends.
Rounding out the top five, 'Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides' spent its fourth weekend in fifth place, Down 40 percent from a week ago, it earned an estimated $10.8 million, enough to follow 'Hangover II' into the $200 million club. That's peanuts compared to the $614.9 million 'Pirates' has grabbed overseas, putting it in a league with the previous two 'Pirates' movies and 'Alice in Wonderland' as one of Disney's biggest foreign earners ever.
This weekend's other new wide release, 'Judy Moody and the Not Bummer Summer,' debuted at No. 7 with an estimated $6.3 million on 2,524 screens. That's about what was expected, given the film's modest star power (sorry, Heather Graham), its limited appeal to boys and its competition against the still-mighty 'Kung Fu Panda' for the pre-teen audience.
'Judy Moody' barely surpassed Woody Allen's'Midnight in Paris,' which expanded wider to 944 screens and took in an estimated $6.1 million. In four weeks, the comedy has earned $14.2 million and become the indie hit of the summer so far. At this rate, it should soon surpass 'Match Point' ($23.1 million) and 'Vicky Cristina Barcelona' ($23.2 million) among Allen's recent modest successes and should become one of the biggest hits among the 40 movies he's directed.
Overall, box office for 2011 is still off almost 7 percent from this time a year ago, thanks to the slump that dominated the first few months of this year. Still, June numbers are up almost 24 percent from last June, thanks to such hits as 'Pirates 4,' Hangover II,' 'Kung Fu Panda 2,' 'Bridesmaids,' and 'Thor.' By this time last summer, the only real blockbusters had been 'Iron Man 2,' 'Shrek Forever After,' and 'The Karate Kid.'
The full top 10:
1. 'Super 8,' $37.0 million (3,379 screens), $38.0 million
2. 'X-Men: First Class,' $25.0 million (3,692), $98,9 million total
3. 'The Hangover Part II,' $18.5 million (3,675), $216.6 million
4. 'Kung Fu Panda 2,' $16.6 million (3,929), $126.9 million
5. 'Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides,' $10.8 million (3,433), $208.8 million
6. 'Bridesmaids,' $10.2 million (2,922), $123.9 million
7. 'Judy Moody and the Not Bummer Summer,' $6.3 million (2,524), new release
8. 'Midnight in Paris,' $6.1 million (944), $14.2 million
9. 'Thor,' $2.4 million (1,782), $173.6 million
10. 'Fast Five,' $1.7 million (1,329), $205.1 million
Follow Gary Susman on Twitter @garysusman.