box office no good deed dolphin tale 2On paper, "Dolphin Tale 2" looked like a stronger box office contender than "No Good Deed." Star-filled, family-friendly, upbeat animal sequel playing on nearly 3,700 screens vs. grim, modest-budget thriller debuting on about 2,200 screens? No wonder pundits predicted an opening around $24 million for "Dolphin" and $17 million for "Deed."

And yet, when Sunday's estimates came in, it was "Deed" boasting a $24.5 million debut and the top slot, while "Dolphin" settled for second place with $16.6 million.

What's behind the upset? A look at how the two films matched up head-to-head in their various elements offers some clues.

Empty Marketplace. Both films were positioned to take advantage of the current box office doldrums. Sure, there were other family films and action movies/thrillers playing, but they were all several weeks old and vulnerable. That said, September is generally not a good time for a family-friendly release (even though the first "Dolphin Tale" opened well with $19.2 million three Septembers ago) since the kids have just gone back to school. So, slight edge to "Deed" here.

Star Power. "Dolphin Tale" has bigger names -- Morgan Freeman, Ashley Judd, Harry Connick Jr. -- though none of them, not even Freeman, is a box office draw on his or her own. The "Deed" stars aren't big box office draws or even household names, though Idris Elba is a familiar face from a number of recent blockbusters, including "Prometheus," "Pacific Rim," and the "Thor" movies. Taraji P. Henson is known from the "Think Like a Man" movies, the "Karate Kid" reboot, and her Oscar-nominated role in "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button." To genre movie viewers and African-American audiences, both target markets for "Deed," Elba and Henson are big enough names. For universal recognition, though, "Dolphin" has the advantage.

Older Audience Appeal. Both movies needed older viewers to succeed, and both got them. Parents and other over-25 viewers made up 56 percent of the "Dolphin" crowd, while 59 percent of "Deed" ticketbuyers were over 30. Winner: "Deed."

Female Audience Appeal. Similarly, both the family-oriented "Dolphin" and the home-invasion thriller "Deed" needed to appeal strongly to female viewers, and both did. "Deed" drew an audience that was 60 percent women, while the "Dolphin" moviegoers were 63 percent female. A near-tie, but "Dolphin" wins by a bottlenose.

Direction. "Dolphin" director Charles Martin Smith also directed the initial "Dolphin Tale" three years ago, and his animal-movie bona fides go back 30 years, to his starring role in "Never Cry Wolf." "Deed" helmer Sam Miller is primarily a TV director, though he's worked on numerous acclaimed crime drama series, including Elba's own "Luther." So, as qualifications go, this category is probably a wash.

Studio. Warner Bros. is used to handling big franchise films; smaller sagas like "Dolphin," not so much. The marketing seems to have relied on the fact that it's a sequel, and that the franchise is based on an uplifting true story. On the other hand, "Deed" distributor Screen Gems (a division of Sony) knows its way around thrillers and other low-budget genre movies (horror, crime), and it crafted a strong trailer for this thriller in particular. Winner: "Deed."

Word-of-Mouth. The older crowd targeted by both films still reads reviews, and "Dolphin" earned somewhat better reviews than "Deed." As for word-of-mouth, measured by CinemaScore grades, "Dolphin" got a solid A, while "Deed" got a decent but not spectacular B+. Advantage: "Dolphin."

A Thriller Mood. That's what audiences must have been in this weekend. Not only did "Deed" tickets sell unexpectedly well, but so did those for "The Drop," the new independent Tom Hardy crime drama that features the late James Gandolfini in his final role. Even though it was playing on just 809 screens, "The Drop" managed a sixth-place debut and an opening estimated at $4.2 million, about twice what was expected. Neither "No Good Deed" nor "The Drop" seemed to have cannibalized each other's audience; enough people really wanted to see thrillers this weekend to make both films into hits. There was no corresponding wave of family-film sentiment to sweep along "Dolphin Tale 2." Winner: "Deed."

Will Packer. "Deed" had producer Packer bringing together the elements the film; "Dolphin" did not. For years now, Packer has been making hit films that don't quite land on the mainstream radar, perhaps because they're low in budget and have predominantly black casts. He works often with Screen Gems. He and Elba made the hit thriller "Obsessed" five years ago, a movie that earned $68.3 million. This year, Packer's already scored three times, with "Ride Along," "About Last Night," and "Think Like a Man Too (co-starring Henson). If there's a formula for success on a shoestring and for box-office upsets, he's found it. Winner: "Deed."

categories Movies, Box Office