The biggest news at the box office this weekend had nothing to do with the head-to-head battle between alien-wrangling cowboys and three-dimensional toys, though we'll get to that, of course. Instead, it was the fourth-place film, 'Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2,' that conjured headlines with its $1 billion worldwide haul. Warner Bros. announced on Sunday that the franchise finale had become the ninth movie in history to cross that threshold, not to mention the biggest hit in the franchise, beating the $974.8 million worldwide gross earned by 'Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone' in 2001.
Meanwhile, Universal executives had to be asking themselves, What the smurf? 'Cowboys & Aliens' rode into town, guns a-blazin', all but certain to lasso the top spot. But the gunslingers and extraterrestrials found an unexpectedly equal foe in the wee blue folk with the floppy caps. The result: an astonishingly strong showing by 'The Smurfs' that left both movies in a virtual tie when early studio estimates were issued on Sunday.
There's barely a Smurf's worth of difference in the claimed figures for the two movies: $36,206,250 for 'Cowboys' vs. '$36,200,000 for 'The Smurfs.' That's a difference of fewer than 800 moviegoers. So, while 'Cowboys' maintains the slimmest of edges on Sunday, 'Smurfs' could wind up in the saddle when final figures are released on Monday.
How did this happen? Most pundits expected 'Cowboys' to open above $40 million and 'Smurfs' to open around $20 to $25 million. After all, 'Cowboys' seemed a foolproof summer movie, a big-budget action spectacle genre mash-up with a perfectly explanatory title, made by the director of 'Iron Man,' starring Indiana Jones and James Bond, and amped by a stable-full of IMAX screenings among its 3,750 screens. In the other corner, 'The Smurfs' seemed designed to please little kids while alienating parents (with its terrible reviews) who fondly remembered the little guys from 1980s TV. It had 3D in its holster but no big movie stars, as well as a smaller release (3,395 screens). And yet, when Friday's numbers came out, it was the Smurfs who were riding tall and the cowboys who seemed Smurf-sized.
On Saturday, 'Cowboys' took the pole position, while 'Smurfs' fell behind. That led to Sunday's expected photo finish, though Sunday business tends to favor family movies. Weak reviews didn't help 'Cowboys,' while 'Smurfs' spawned very strong word-of-mouth. 'Smurfs' also seems to have been timed well, released as 'Cars 2,''Zookeeper' and 'Winnie the Pooh' fade, and opposite a slew of movies geared toward older kids and grown-ups. The 3D factor helped a lot as well, responsible for 45 percent of the 'Smurfs' haul. And these live-action/CGI hybrids have done very well lately, even without big human stars - see 'Hop,' 'Yogi Bear,' and the 'Alvin and the Chipmunks' movies - while previous western/fantasy/sci-fi mashups have included such horse-apples as 'Jonah Hex' and 'Wild Wild West.'
'Smurfs' still has a long way to go to make up its estimated $110 million budget, but there won't be a lot of family competition for the rest of the summer, so the tiny blue army could go the distance. On the other hand, it's looking like a long shot for 'Cowboys' to recoup its estimated $163 million budget, especially with a new genre contender, 'Rise of the Planet of the Apes,' throwing a banana peel in its path this coming weekend.
Last week's winner, 'Captain America: The First Avenger,' fell hard against the cowboy/alien/Smurf onslaught. It earned an estimated $24.9 million, down 62 percent from its debut a week ago, landing in third place. (Pundits had expected a second-week drop of about 50 percent, to about $32 million.) The film boasts a solid 10-day total of $116.8 million, but a fall that steep suggests that supersoldier Steve Rogers' legs aren't that strong.
In fourth place, 'Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2' earned an estimated $21.9 million. In its third weekend, it fell 54 percent, about what was expected. Its domestic total to date is $318.5 million. Overseas, Warner Bros. is claiming earnings of $690 million, for a worldwide total of $1.009 billion. 'Deathly Hallows' becomes the first of the eight 'Potter' pictures, and only the ninth movie ever, to top $1 billion. It's the second movie this summer to join that exclusive club; May's 'Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides' has earned $1.033 billion. Not adjusting for inflation, 'Deathly Hallows' is now the eighth highest-grossing movie of all time (it's slightly ahead of 'The Dark Knight,' with $1.002 billion), while the current 'Pirates' is in sixth place.
'The Smurfs' wasn't the only new movie to outperform expectations. 'Crazy, Stupid, Love' opened in fifth place with an estimated $19.3 million, beating predictions of around $16 to $18 million. Although the movie opened in a market saturated with adult-oriented comedies, this one boasted decent reviews, the star power of Steve Carell and Ryan Gosling's abs.
Overall, this year's domestic box office is slowly catching up to 2010's earnings. The gap between 2011's year-to-date grosses and the same figure this time a year ago is down to 5.2 percent, or $$347.8 million. The July outperformed last July by $78.3 million, up by 5.9 percent.
The full top 10:
1. 'Cowboys & Aliens,' $36.206 million (3,750 screens), new release
2. 'The Smurfs,' $36.200 million (3,395), new release
3. 'Captain America: The First Avenger,' $24.9 million (3,715), $116.8 million total
4. 'Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2,' $21.9 million (4,145), $318.5 million
5. 'Crazy, Stupid, Love,' $19.3 million (3,020), new release
6. 'Friends With Benefits,' $9.3 million (2,926), $38.2 million
7. 'Horrible Bosses,' $7.1 million (2,510), $96.2 million
8. 'Transformers: Dark of the Moon,' $6.0 million (2,604), $337.9 million
9. 'Zookeeper,' $4.2 million (2,418), $68.7 million
10. 'Cars 2,' $2.3 million (1,763), $182.1 million
Follow Gary Susman on Twitter: @garysusman.