furious 7 box officeEveryone knew "Furious 7" would be big. But $300 million in less than three weeks big?

This weekend, the car-chase sequel earned an estimated $29.1 million, with a comfortable lead of $5.1 million over its closest rival, new comedy "Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2." New horror film "Unfriended" was third, with an estimated $16.0 million. And Disney's annual Earth Day-timed nature documentary, "Monkey Kingdom," opened in seventh place with an estimated $4.7 million. So, again, the seventh installment of an action franchise, in its third week in theaters, still earned nearly $30 million, enough to beat all competitors new and old. After 17 days of release, it's earned $294.4 million, so it should break $300 million in the next couple of days.

How does that happen?

Part of it is a testimony to the strengths of the franchise, and of this installment in particular, as was clear when the film opened two weekends ago. Indeed, this weekend, it slipped just 50 percent from last week, a modest decline for a film in its third weekend. The movie seems to deliver what it promises, and its word-of-mouth remains strong enough to draw sizable crowds.

But part of it also demonstrates how weak the competition is. Indeed, the entire film industry, including "Furious 7's" own studio seems to have ceded the month of April to Vin Diesel & Co., putting nothing but sacrificial lambs up against it.

That seems an unfair way to describe "Paul Blart 2," the sequel to an enormously popular comedy. In fact, most weekends, a $24.0 million debut would have been good for first place and would have given distributor Sony reason to rejoice. It's certainly better than any Kevin James movie that doesn't also star Adam Sandler has done in recent years.

But maybe Sony sensed some weakness in the film. After all, it's been six years since the original; that's a long time between installments for a comedy series that primarily appeals to young viewers who may have outgrown the franchise. And the film got poor reviews, so older viewers aren't going to see it. Even those who've seen "Blart 2" have provided only middling word-of-mouth recommendations, as indicated by the weak B- grade at CinemaScore. Initial predictions for the film ran as low as $19 million.

"Unfriended" got even worse word-of-mouth, with a C grade at CinemaScore. Reviews were OK, not that the young women who drive the horror market care about reviews. The movie's gimmicky cyber-bullying premise could have come off as desperate to be trendy. The film had no star power, though that hasn't stopped other low-budget entries from the Blumhouse horror-film production house from becoming hits. Its R rating may have kept younger potential viewers from seeing it. Given that the film probably cost less than $10 million to make, it didn't have to do very well to break even, and expectations were accordingly modest. Its distributor was Universal, same as "Furious 7," a cash cow the studio wasn't about to jeopardize by mounting any serious competition, even on 2,739 screens. So its $16.0 million debut is very respectable but no threat to the onrushing "Furious 7."

As for "Monkey Kingdom," that, too, opened in line with the lower end of expectations. Some Disney nature docs in recent years, notably, "Chimpanzee," have done better (it opened at $10.7 million three Aprils ago), but most have opened with $6 million or less. Last year's "Bears" debuted just $51,000 higher than "Monkey Kingdom." It scored a very high A- grade at CinemaScore, it raised a lot of money for conservation projects (as all the recent Disney nature films have done), and it opened in line with expectations. So Disney should be pleased, even with the movie's seventh-place premiere.

Back when studio programmers initially scheduled these films to open in the wake of "Furious 7," they may have considered them to be credible counterprogramming to the testosterone-fueled action spectacle. After all, "Blart 2" was a broad comedy, "Unfriended" a horror film (and only about the fourth one so far this year) that targeted female audiences, and "Monkey Kingdom" was a family movie with cute, real animals.

But as box office results have proved throughout the spring, counterprogramming doesn't really work anymore, especially not against a movie with as universal appeal as "Furious 7." The young men targeted by "Blart 2" were also the target for "Furious 7." But so were the young female horror fans "Unfriended" tried to befriend, since the women on-screen in "Furious 7" give as good as the men. (And many of those young women couldn't go see "Unfriended" because of its R rating, while they were not barred from the PG-13 "Furious 7.") As for "Monkey Kingdom," Disney polling found that 51 percent of the audience was over 25. So much for trying to draw young viewers. But while little kids weren't going to be lured away by the drag racers, that wasn't true for their parents and the other grown-ups who turned out to be a significant fraction of "Monkey Kingdom's" audience.

A hit as huge as "Furious 7" is supposed to entice people off their couches and get them to go to the multiplex, where those who can't get tickets to sold-out showings will go see something else that's playing. And maybe that's true; maybe "Blart 2," "Unfriended," and "Monkey Kingdom" would have done worse if "Furious 7" hadn't been playing as well. But no one, apparently, went to see these movies just because "Furious 7" didn't appeal to them and they wanted to see something else. If "Furious 7" drew infrequent moviegoers to the multiplex, it also sucked out almost all the oxygen and didn't leave much for any other movie.

Next week will close out the month of April with period romantic fantasy "The Age of Adaline" and wartime family drama "Little Boy" (starring Kevin James, of all people). Does anyone really think either of those is going to dethrone "Furious 7"? Not until "Avengers: Age of Ultron" opens on May 1 is "Furious 7" likely to run out of gas.
categories Movies, Box Office