This was a tricky weekend to determine who the winners and losers at the box office really were.
On the one hand, there was "2 Guns," which did better than its studio predicted but not as well as box office experts predicted, yet still opened at the top of the chart. On the other hand, there was "The Smurfs 2," which did poorly by the standards of both its predecessor and this summer's other family films, but which may yet be the big winner at the global box office. And on the other other hand, there was "The Spectacular Now," whose spectacular opening on just a handful of screens may ultimately mean that the biggest box office winner of all is... Shailene Woodley?
Confused? Understandable. This was the kind of weekend that confirms the famous adage of "The Princess Bride" screenwriter William Goldman that, when it comes to picking winners in Hollywood, "nobody knows anything." Here, then, are some things we do know: lessons from this weekend's box office results:
There are no sure things... except maybe Denzel Washington.
May we pause for a moment to marvel at Denzel Washington? After a summer that proved that not even Will Smith and Johnny Depp are guaranteed box-office draws, Washington remains a consistent opener. Except for his labor-of-love historical drama "The Great Debaters," his last 11 movies have opened north of $20 million. The "2 Guns" estimated debut of $27.4 million is the fifth-largest of his career. At 58, he remains a credible action hero (and Oscar-worthy dramatic actor, and -- if he chose to be -- romantic lead). And unlike pretty much every other A-list leading man in Hollywood, he's become a reliable box office draw without ever having starred in a franchise of his own. (He's been in a few remakes, but he's never made a sequel, worn spandex, or inspired an action figure.) He also hasn't done a lot of comedy (you have to go back 17 years, to "The Preacher's Wife," to find anything like a comedy on his filmography), but since he can do everything else well, there was no reason to think he and co-star Mark Wahlberg (who has done this sort of thing a few times already) couldn't pull this off as well.
Lightning doesn't always strike twice.
The original "Smurfs" became a hit on this same weekend two years ago, kicked off by an early Wednesday opening. This year, however, "Smurfs 2" has had to follow such successful family cartoons as "Epic," "Monsters University," and "Despicable Me 2" (the last of which, by the way, is still in the top five, even after five weeks in theaters, scoring another estimated $10.4 million this weekend). So, the novelty of seeing Neil Patrick Harris interact with tiny blue people may have worn off, leading to a third-place opening at an estimated $18.2 million, from Friday to Sunday, and an estimated $27.8 million since its premiere last Wednesday. Not only did "Smurfs 2" do a fraction of the business that its predecessor did -- the first "Smurfs" earned about twice as much over three days ($35.6 million) and 40 percent more over five days ($46.3 million) -- but it didn't even do as well as this summer's family animated dud "Turbo" (which had a five-day opening of $31.0 million). So the domestic numbers aren't promising for "Smurfs 2," especially since it's about to get flattened by Disney's "Planes."
Sometimes an underdog isn't really an underdog.
Universal projected that "2 Guns" would open in the low 20s, perhaps debuting behind "Smurfs 2" and even last week's holdout, "The Wolverine" (which was second this week with an estimated $21.7 million). In retrospect, that modest prediction looks like lowballing, to make the film's actual performance seem all the more impressive when it vaulted over that low bar. In fact, most pundits expected the movie to open about where it did, or even in the low thirties. If anything, "2 Guns" underperformed expectations, yet it still opened at No. 1.
Overseas moviegoers to the rescue.
When the smoke clears, "Smurfs 2" may end up being a huge hit after all. That's because it's already made an estimated $52.5 million overseas, or about twice what it made here, for a worldwide total of $80.3 million. If this keeps up for another few days (until "Planes" swoops in), there's no reason to think that "Smurfs 2" can't recoup its reported $105 million budget. It wouldn't be the first time this summer that viewers abroad turned one of Hollywood's expensive domestic mistakes (including "After Earth," "The Hangover Part III," and "Pacific Rim") into a global smash hit. Now, the fact that moviegoers abroad seem to like big, dumb spectacle even more than we do might make observers wonder about taste, but as long as the overseas cash registers keep ringing, the studios will keep making these movies, whether Americans want to see them or not.
Cheap buddy action comedies are hot.
Before "2 Guns," this summer's audiences made a similar hit out of "The Heat." And kudos to Fox and Universal, respectively, for keeping the costs of "The Heat" and "2 Guns" low. Despite the presence of two usually well-paid marquee names in each, "The Heat" cost just a reported $43 million to make, while "2 Guns" cost a reported $61 million. ("The Lone Ranger" probably spent more than both movies' budgets combined on cowboy boots alone.) So far, "The Heat" has earned a hair shy of $150 million in North America, while "2 Guns" seems well on its way to recouping its modest budget. Which it might have done, even with Universal's conservative projections.
Shailene Woodley is going to be a big star.
The ABC Family actress ("Secret Life of the American Teenager" already earned her art-house cred with her acclaimed performance as George Clooney's daughter a couple years ago in "The Descendants." This weekend, she proved she can carry a movie on her own with the limited-release debut of "The Spectacular Now," which lived up to its title by pulling in an average of $50,000 per screen on four screens. That's a huge per-venue score; this week's biggest wide-release hit, "2 Guns," had a per-screen average of $9,045. Now, maybe the teen romance drew such numbers because it got good buzz at Sundance, but it's more likely that viewers came to see Woodley. Who, by the way, is the star of next spring's "Divergent," launching a franchise that's expected to be the next "Hunger Games." Whatever Woodley's got that makes her compelling to both teens and adults, it's already working for her. Stand back and make room.